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Jason Yu on Learning from Bong Joon-ho to Craft Heartfelt Horror ‘Sleep’  

First-time filmmaker Jason Yu, whose horror drama Sleep premieres in Cannes’ Critics’ Week on May 21, honed his craft under the tutelage of South Korea’s very finest. Among the aspiring director’s first industry jobs after graduating from film school in Seoul was an assistant director gig on Bong Joon-ho’s Netflix sci-fi adventure drama Okja, which premiered at Cannes in 2017. Yu credits the experience with teaching him “almost everything” he knows about filmmaking.

“I wasn’t really conscious of what I was observing at the time, because I wasn’t there to learn,” he remembers. “I was just trying to pull my own weight and not ruin the film. But while I was making Sleep, I realized that I was desperately trying to mimic, consciously or unconsciously, everything director Bong did — during preproduction, during production, in the way that I talked to the actors, and even during post-production and promotion.” 

Not long after Okja, Yu, who grew up partially in the U.K. and is bilingual, was hired by Lee Chang-dong to translate and write the English subtitles for the Korean auteur’s now-classic existential thriller Burning, winner of Cannes’ FIPRESCI international critics’ prize in 2018. By that point, Yu had subtitled a number of major Korean films, but he had never encountered a filmmaker with such an obsessive attention to detail as Lee, who famously began his career as an acclaimed literary novelist. 

“Usually when doing subtitles, I didn’t really interact with the directors much — I just delivered the final translated product,” Yu remembers. “But director Lee, even though he doesn’t speak much English, he wanted to discuss the intention behind every piece of dialog and to review every translated word to know why I chose it.” 

He continues: “It would be rude of me to call him ‘brave,’ because he is my senior and one of our greatest artists, but he even asked me — after lots of discussion — to make some of the English dialog sound deliberately more unnatural and grammatically incorrect, because in Korean he intended some lines to sound strange, or ambiguous. I found that so inspiring, because all of the other directors I had worked with were adamant that all of the dialog sound very colloquial, American and clear. I learned from director Lee that a director should think very deeply about their intentions — and have full confidence in those choices.” 

One could argue that Yu’s debut, Sleep, bears some traces of both of these influences. The film is both a slickly realized genre exercise and a film of subtle personal intention. 

Starring Lee Sun-kyun (the wealthy patriarch of Bong’s Parasite) and Jung Yu-mi (Train to Busan and a regular muse of Hong Sang-soo), Sleep follows a happy pair of newlyweds whose domestic bliss is disrupted when the husband begins speaking in his sleep — repeatedly stating, “Someone’s inside.” Soon he begins transforming into someone else entirely during increasingly belligerent bouts of sleepwalking. Overwhelmed with anxiety that he may hurt himself or their young family — including their unborn child — the wife gradually becomes more and more consumed by an irrational fear that poses its own dangers. 

Yu says his initial, surface-level goal was to simply create a fun, mystery horror film. But while he was writing the screenplay more personal elements seeped into the story. 

“I was preparing to marry my longtime girlfriend, and because I was on the cusp of that, I think I unconsciously wanted to present a less typical portrait of marriage,” he says. “Usually, in films about marriage, I find that the central conflict usually is derived from the husband or wife making some kind of irredeemable mistake, or one of them simply falling out of love. Because I was about to marry my sweetheart, I didn’t want to portray marriage that way. I wanted to show a couple who really love each other dearly, and are supportive of each other like best friends. So, instead of an internal failing, I throw a dangerous external obstacle their way — something beyond conscious control — and try to show that they can only overcome this problem together, as a married unit.” 

Yu has maintained a relationship with Bong and showed the elder director drafts his scripts and cuts of the film at various stages, a privilege he acknowledges as “very lucky for a first-time director.” 

“Director Bong gave me lots of great notes about things I could fine-tune, but the most important thing — which came when I finished the first draft of the script — was he told me the biggest challenge for the story would be convincing the audience of why the wife doesn’t simply leave as their situation becomes more and more extreme,” Yu says. “This was really at the heart of what I was trying to say with the movie and he totally understood that.” 

Yu adds: “So, when I showed him the final cut, and he told me his concerns had been well addressed, I was just so happy and grateful.” 

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