The utter simplicity of Jang Kun-Jae’s Sleepless Night makes it feel like such a tender work of art, whose intimacy feels utterly sublime in its feeling. Here’s a film about a couple in their early 30s. They both have jobs and seem genuinely happy with each other. They eat dinner, go on walks in the park, and wash each other in the shower. This is an actual couple, who have a major concerns about where their life is heading, but it never dominates their thoughts or minds.
The digital frames of Sleepless Night (not to be confused with the French action film) might come off as almost amateurish, but Jang is no amateur. This South Korean director, making his second feature (I’ve been told his first feature, Eighteen, is equally impressive), seems to be inspired by a wave of great Asian artists behind him: Yasujiro Ozu, Hirokazu Kore-eda, and Hong Sang-soo. It's a film with almost no pretensions to raise the stakes of its narrative beyond its extremely limited scope, but it executes it with such lyrical precision, that it held me rapturous for its brief, 65-minute run time.
Set in a small suburb, Sleepless Night follows a few days in the lives of this couple, played by the extraordinary talented Kim Soo-Hyeon and Kim Ju-Ryoeng. He works in a factory, but forgot to ask his boss about whether he’ll get paid extra for working on Sundays, while she occasionally teaches a yoga class. The closest the film comes to a narrative is their small but meaningful debates about whether to have a child. He becomes worried when he learns that his close friend is finally getting a divorce; she is pressured by her mother by her concerns over their could-be-better financial state. However, Jang never lets these thoughts dominate the conversations—they are briefly discussed with honesty but never with intensity (only two moments mange to present negative emotions to the screen, but both are revealed as dreams, hinted at with the subtlest of visual cues). The biggest point of conflict—a missing bike—is solved with a dream-like simplicity.
R. Emmet Sweeney suggests that Sleepless Night could have been easily called This is 30, an apt comparison to Apatow’s recent film, but of course in no way reflects the visual detail given in each of Jang’s shots. Most scenes play out in a single, unadorned shot, but Jang provides a visual mirrored symmetry to almost every frame, making each stand out with subtle detail. Additionally, observe his beautiful use of food in almost every scene, using each meal (dumplings, japchae, cake, beer, wine) to play into the various dynamics of the narrative. Jang’s emphasis on the body as a living, breathing object that interacts both intellectually and physically with the ones we love is a thing of wonder, and the intimate details he fills into these bodies even more revelatory. Even a clasp of hands, not emphasized by the camera but certainly present in the frame, is quivering with emotions.
While many films claim to be about relationships and marriage, Sleepless Night reveals wondrous truth without even making it appear so. Scenes are dedicated to the pleasures of simply living with the one you love, whether cleaning the house on a lazy Saturday or reading books before bed. One character remarks to another “You just missed it,” referring to a shooting star he observes, almost on the meta-joke on the tiny but sublime movements in narrative that occur within the film. The decisions and anxieties on display are never emphasized, but presented with a honesty rarely on display—not because there are these “brutal truths” that must be reached, but simply because they play out without false dramatic beats.
In an early scene, our two protagonists make out before they go to bed, and you hear the sounds of their kisses, which sound like two people making out. No detail is spared in Sleepless Night, as Jang creates a film of wondrous beauty without changing reality. This is a monumental work of a soon-to-be major artist.