Tuesday, August 5, 2008

WIDE AWAKE (2007) d. Lee Kyu-Maan

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

There is something deeply unsettling about handing over the health and safety of our bodies to another person (a doctor) and allowing that person to stick needles, knives and other instruments into us, often in a painful fashion. For children it is even more terrifying, for the young lack knowledge and the ability to override unreasoning panic. It takes a long time for our childhood fear of doctors and hospitals to fade, and for some that terror never abates. Deeply invasive surgery needing anesthesia is even more frightening, because there is the outside chance of waking up before the surgery is finished, never regaining consciousness or experiencing full consciousness during the surgery due to what is called “anesthesia awareness”. Such a thought is unbelievably horrifying and initiates some of our profoundest phobias of torture and human experimentation. WIDE AWAKE (aka RI-TEON) is another Korean horror film that mines some of our most deep-seeded fears and this time it deals with madness brought on by hospital trauma connected to “anesthesia awareness”.

WIDE AWAKE begins 25 years in the past with the story of 9 year old Sang-u Na, a boy being operated on for heart trouble and who is accidentally and inappropriately anesthetized, result in a “conscious” state where he is unable to move or cry out during the procedure. While the boy survives the trauma, his mind is permanently unhinged. Twenty-five years later, Dr. Jae-u Ryu is working as a surgeon with colleagues Seok-ho Jang and Chi-Hun O and is making a life with his wife Hui-Jin Seo and a returning friend Uk-Hwan Gang. A madman enters Dr. Ryu’s days, hurling threats and terrorizing patients and doctors at the hospital. As shadowy figures menace Dr. Ryu and his friends, a race against time to find out who the maniac is and who he will strike next ensues, enmeshing everyone in a web of deceit and death.

WIDE AWAKE is probably the best of the Korean horror films I have seen thus far and while all of them have been enjoyable to varying degrees, this one is probably the most complete. Blending murder mystery, medical thriller, gore film and hospital drama seamlessly, WIDE AWAKE plays on nearly every emotion and reaction it can. The viewer’s heart is engaged by the character interplay, the secrets, the lies, heartbreak and traumatic shocks. There is friendship established and broken, families smashed on the anvil of tragedy and a cat and mouse game with an unknown killer. At the same time, WIDE AWAKE has some wonderfully repellent scenes of murderous intent utilizing medical science, actual surgical footage and all the tools of the medical trade brought into play with the same effect as a blade held to the eye. Sadism, revenge, doubt, faith misplaced and horrendous mistakes made in situations where no other choice was open make this an intricate tapestry of plot twists and turns, told mostly in a linear fashion, but with a hefty helping of flashbacks and sidesteps to keep the viewer guessing.

As has been the case with all of the Korean horror films distributed by Genius Products, WIDE AWAKE is well shot with a great deal of thought going into the composition of scenes, maybe more so in this film where the look of the face, a glance of the eye, the poise of a scalpel and the angle of a needle are all needed to build suspense, suspicion and revulsion. While not an overly colorful film, the subtle gradations in tone and shade help to delineate between past and present, waking and memory, fury and sorrow. There are some wonderful set locations outside the environs of the hospital that help to develop a richer sense of imagery. The soundtrack and incidental music of Korean films continue to be a splendid mix of orchestral and semi-classical scores that help to enlarge the emotional impact of each scene and create a rousing sense of mood. The cast all give excellent performances that run the gamut of distraught to soulless, building a palpable sense of connection to the characters. WIDE AWAKE hits the gold on every front and did it without feeling long, as this was nearly a two-hour film. It had a powerful start and maintained a steady but carefully considered pace throughout and never disappointed me when it came to its expressive intensity and visual appeal.

Like many of the CJ Entertainment offerings, WIDE AWAKE has an excellent bonus features menu crammed with a surprising number of extras. There is a 38 minute mini-documentary on the making of WIDE AWAKE called “Memory Removed: The Making of Wide Awake” that is an excellent behind the scenes look at the entire project through the eyes of the crew and cast. Crew members are brought back for a 13 minute featurette on “Production Design” where special effects, props and settings are explored. A 10 ½ minute set of “Actor Interviews” with Myung-Min Kim (Jae-U Ryu), Yoo-Seok Jung (Seok-Ho Jang), Jun-Sang Yoo (Uk-Hwan Gang) and Tae-U Kim (Chin-Ho O) and the director Lee Kyu-Maan take a look at the script and the daily production. A 5 ½ minute mini-featurette called “Anesthesia Awareness: About Interoperational Awareness” utilizes interviews with the cast (including actress Yoo-Mi Kim who played Hui-Jin Seo looks at the grisly concept of being “wide awake” during anesthetized surgery. Finally there is a 12 minute segment of 4 deleted scenes, all of which are lengthier than usual and quite surprising, not the least of which was the graphic sex scene that was cut from the final release. Just as WIDE AWAKE is the best of the Korean horror films I have watched this year, its extras menu was the deepest and the most interesting, although some of the editing was extremely choppy.

It isn’t often that I rave about a film for I am at that stage of life where cynicism and a deeply jaded nature have greatly diminished my ability to be swept away by wonder and joy. Once in a while though I am reminded of the many elements of life that can still bring a sparkle to the eye, one of them being a film that causes me to concentrate on it to the exclusion of all else. While there are probably some who will find fault with this film, for there is fault in all that human-kind does, I thoroughly enjoyed it, recoiled when I was suppose to, felt bereft when it was appropriate, cheered for the hero at the right times, made predictions and drew conclusions as I tried to anticipate the story’s direction, was impressed by the sights and sounds at all the right times and was entertained. Isn’t that the essence of what should happen while watching a film, that I should enjoy the experience? When I put on my reviewer’s cap, it is more common for me to find fault, analyze it and then exploit that weakness for the benefit of the viewer. This time around, my prognosis is a good one, this is a strong patient and no one need be desensitized by Novocain or any other pain-relieving narcotic. You won’t need them. See WIDE AWAKE with all your senses in tact and let it manipulate you the way a film should.


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