There’s nothing quite like the joy of discovery at film festivals. Being blown away by a Malick or a Tarantino is one thing. Getting the first taste of what will become known as an “Eggert” or a “Ducournau”? That’s just unforgettable. Premiering in the Critics’ Week sidebar of the 76th Cannes Film Festival, South Korean writer/director Jason Yu’s Sleep is a helluva feature debut that should make him a star. Seamlessly blending humor and folk horror for a 95-min non-stop thrill ride, it’s a dazzling, superbly rendered genre exercise and the funnest thing I’ve seen here.
The wackiness starts right away when a pregnant woman (Jung Yu-mi) wakes up in the dark to see her husband (Lee Sun-kyun) sitting up straight in bed, murmuring ominously “Someone is inside”. The harmlessly creepy episode leads the couple to believe that the husband suffers from sleeping disorder, for which he starts to undergo treatment. But pills don’t stop him from seemingly turning into someone else at night and soon the wife feels compelled to take action in order to protect their newborn baby from her own father.
Set almost entirely in an apartment building with a principal cast of two, Sleep is conceived and executed with incredible efficiency. Yu takes the simple idea of supernatural possession and somehow finds a world of possibilities for it to percolate – within the familiar walls of one’s own home. Like the wife, we are scarred by strange incidents involving everything from the pram to the fridge and can sense the paranoia that slowly encroaches on every part of her living space. In the gloriously over-the-top third act, another form of possession takes hold, setting the stage for an intense showdown.
Written and directed with an unerring sense for rhythm, Sleep builds its tension with continuous, propulsive momentum. As contained as the story is, Yu manages to always take things in new, unexpected directions. The character arc of the wife, especially, brings humanity to the paranormal activities and proves somehow even scarier. Meanwhile, the film, which features a sword-wielding exorcist and a dog-hating ghost, knows not to take itself too seriously. The notably cute production design adds touches of hyperreality and the editing plays up the comical beats amidst the thrills with great assurance. For its skilled, highly entertaining mix of laughs, scares and heart, Sleep stands out as a first feature with both festival appeal and commercial viability. We shall be hearing Yu’s name a lot in the future.
Premiering at the Un Certain Regard sidebar, Omen is the feature debut of Congolese-Belgian interdisciplinary artist Baloji and tells a story of identity and ancestry, memory and sorcery. While a little rough around the edges, it’s daring, ambitious, visually arresting, all of which signs of promise one looks for in a first-time filmmaker.
The protagonist Koffi is a young man from Congo who has spent the past 15 years living in Belgium. As he’s about to get married, he takes girlfriend Alice back to his home to observe the tradition of dowry-delivery. While the couple is there, deep within the fevered embrace of the African heartland, old family secrets would be revealed that tell of a trauma suffered across generations.
Baloji’s screenplay could use some streamlining but impresses nonetheless with its formal rigor and topical richness. What at first appears to be a story about Koffi’s estrangement from his family slowly branches out to paint a larger picture of Africa, its ancient ways and modern struggles. From Koffi the narrative focus shifts to Paco, a dress-wearing gangster dealing drugs in the town nearby whose livelihood is threatened by a rival gang; then onto Tshala, Koffi’s sister who’s also ostracized by the family for her free-love lifestyle. But finally you realize this is a story about their mother Mujila, someone seen in a largely villainous light up until then, and about the abuse that passes from one generation to the next.
Baloji observes the everyday troubles of modern Africa through an ultra-realist lens, but puts on a dreamy filter for fantastical sequences from time to time. I’m particularly struck by these flights of fancy scattered throughout the film. The opening and closing scenes, for example, picture Mujila in the desert, a lone figure overwhelmed by the endless expanse of the landscape. Through composition and a beguiling use of color, these images conjure deep, profound emotions that words cannot. In a film that deals with magic and unspeakable truths, Baloji’s choices for these surrealist interludes feel inspired.
Other noteworthy debut features I’ve seen in Cannes this year include Banel & Adama by Ramata-Toulaye Sy, The Sweet East by Sean Price Williams and, in particular, The Settlers by Felipe Gálvez. It will be interesting to see if any of these can win the coveted Camera d’Or on Saturday.