After the wave of New Korean Cinema hit the world like a slap from the back of a hand in the late 90s and early 00s, certain expectations were set from the most prominent films to rise from that era. South Korean film, even in its most subtle form, became the cinema with big shoulders, represented in the slick action, emblematic vengeance, soju swagger, unapologetic brutality, and brash humor. For this reason, an assured yet unadorned drama like Jang Kun-jae’s Sleepless Night is actually more surprising than the latest go-for-broke revenge flick to come down the pike.
The film opens in a small town at night, where the sound of the crickets is louder than the teenagers horsing around on the sidewalk. We finally settle on our protagonists, a couple sitting in front of the TV, each enjoying a glass of beer, chatting about their day. They sit close in a tiny love seat barely meant for two; he has his shirt off, she has her pants off. He mentions that he has agreed to work on Sunday as a requested favor to his supervisor; she’s concerned, only because it seems he’s being taken advantage of; he considers it, and realizes that she is probably right.
The couple, married for two years, has an ease with each other that is instantly endearing. He works in a factory, she’s a yoga instructor, and their companionship, which dominates the short but sweet 65-minute anti-drama, exudes authenticity. The snapshot of their relationship, as they face the pressures of parenthood and the realities of their income, is unapologetically sprinkled with their mutual adoration and consideration for each other. As clichéd as that sounds in writing, it feels wholly unconventional on the screen.
Sleepless Night is Jung’s first film since winning the Dragons and Tigers Award in Vancouver three years ago for his debut Eighteen, a film that also gives careful consideration to the veracity of its characters. Sleepless Night is similarly slight by design, where excessiveness is simply not in its vocabulary. The drama, modest as it is, occasionally segues into fantasy without warning—a skip of the needle into a parallel universe where the couple’s simple and happy lives are disrupted by the melodrama that the film so effortlessly eschews. By introducing scenes where they argue and bicker, Jang is not only pointing out the avoided potential within their marriage, but also the avoided potential within his own film.