A realistic look at the difficulties of marriage from director Jang Kun-jae…
Korean writer director Jang Kun-jae followed his 2009 debut, the gritty indie teen drama Eighteen, with Sleepless Night, another insightful offering that this time focused on the ups and downs of married life. Starring Kim Su-hyeon (Set Me Free) and Kim Ju-ryong (Texture of Skin), the film was much-praised by domestic critics following its 2012 premiere at Jeonju, and went onto enjoy a successful tour of festivals around the world, playing at Hong Kong, Rotterdam, Tokyo, Vancouver and other high profile events.
Kim Su Yeon and Kim Ju-ryong play Hyun Soo and Joo Hee, a husband and wife in their early thirties, enjoying what seems to be a blissfully happy marriage, their love and closeness only having grown since their wedding two years back. Despite their happiness the cracks gradually start to show, and financial pressure and the decision whether or not to have a child begin to take their toll.
If Sleepless Night sounds relatively plot-free, that’s because it is, the film basically sticking to following Hyun Soo and Joo Hee as they go about their daily lives, capturing their everyday interactions and conversations. There’s little in the way of artificial drama or anything over the top, and the film is very different to others from Korea dealing with the same themes, sticking to a gradual, patient exploration of its two central characters and the subtle changes in their relationship and bond. Partly based upon Jang Kun-jae’s own experiences, the film never feels anything less than genuine or believable, and what it might lack in the usual scenes of conflict and tears it more than makes up for in heartfelt and honest emotions, offering real insight and never shying away from harsh truths. While its slow pace and long stretches of meandering dialogue might make it a bit of a push for some viewers, the film is quietly involving and results in rich emotional rewards for those willing to forgo the tried and tested melodrama of the form.
Clocking in at an impressively brief 65 minutes, Sleepless Night is nothing if not economic, though Jang manages to pack in more humanity and realism than films twice its length. Taking a bare-bones, naturalistic approach, the film almost resembles a documentary in places, albeit one directed by Hong Sang Soo, Kim showing a similar ability when it comes to making wry observations on life, love and the fragility of ego. There’s a rare intimacy to the film throughout, making it equally engaging when sweet, painful or awkward, and Kim Su-hyeon and Kim Ju-ryong are both fantastic and wholly convincing in their roles – a not unimportant factor, since the two are in pretty much every single scene of the film. Despite this being their first film together, there’s an amazing, relaxed chemistry between the pair, and this plays a large part in its success, Kim getting great performances from them that match the script perfectly.
Sleepless Night is a superior Korean indie, and a strong second feature from the talented Jang Kun-jae. Though perhaps a little quiet for anyone looking for traditional melodrama, it’s one of the better and most effective and authentic films about marriage in recent years, and benefits from a pleasantly short running time and an admirable focus on its characters and themes.