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'White Tower' Fans Will Remain 'Wide Awake' ("Wide Awake")

2008/03/12 | Permalink | Source

Kim Myung-min enlivens a solid medical thriller

By Kyu Hyun Kim (qhyunkim)

"Wide Awake" ("Wide Awake") takes a real-life medical mystery, "intra-operative awareness" -- patients who remain fully conscious (and responsive to pain) but paralyzed during operations -- and weaves a revenge-themed mystery plot around it.

(Intra-operative awareness takes place shockingly more often than people realize. A North American survey claims that approximately 20,000 to 40,000 surgery patients suffer through it every year, with 30 percent of them feeling acute pain.)

The film opens with a young boy completely traumatized by his heart operation, the experience of feeling a scalpel cutting into his chest, a bone saw whine-grinding into his sternum and a doctor fingering through the insides of his body. Despite the boy's tearful protestations, no one believes him: it's 1980s Korea, after all.

Twenty-five years later, the doctors and nurses who had operated on him begin to die mysteriously.

Ryu Jae-woo (Kim Myung-min), a conscientious surgeon happily married to the beautiful Hee-jin (Kim Yoo-mi), realizes that the operation-traumatized boy, who seems to have been his childhood friend, is behind these deaths. On the suspect list are Lee Myeong-suk (Kim Roi-ha), stalking Dr. Ryu for failing to save his wife, and the seemingly unhinged Uk-hwan (Yu Jun-sang). The hypnosis specialist Oh Chi-hoon (Kim Tae-woo) also seems to be on to some information about the culprit.

Even though a Hollywood film with an almost identical premise ("Awake") was released a few months after this film's Seoul opening (an apparent coincidence), the long shadow cast on "Wide Awake" is in fact that of the ultra-popular, Japanese-novel-based medical drama "White Tower", to the point that the "medical drama" aspect of the movie is many times more fascinating than the murder mystery.

The filmmakers, including newcomer director Lee Kyoo-man and co-screenwriter Lee Hyeon-jin, spin their yarn as a straightforward whodunit: a crime has been committed, we are given clues to the possible motive, a load of technically complicated but authentic-sounding information regarding the exotic methods of murder are provided, and all this is nicely resolved at the end with the minimum of "what the heck?" confusion.

Unfortunately, pacing is rather slack and the mystery is not as well thought-out as it should have been. The climactic big revelation is especially not handled well, relying on the considerable talents of the film's stars to get by. (I must say, too, that hypnotism is seriously being over-used by Korean thrillers as a plot device.)

It should be said in the film's defense that the film does feature one act of revenge, which, like the more famous one in "Old Boy", makes instinctive logical sense and is truly devastating in its cruelty.

But all this would have been for naught had director Lee chosen the wrong actors. None of the leads is asked to do anything extraordinary but they inhabit their frankly two-dimensional roles with admirable professionalism and requisite conviction.

In particular, few people will doubt Kim Myung-min's ability to carry a whole picture after "Wide Awake" ("Wide Awake"): he does a superb job of conveying the self-doubt of a doctor whose faith in his medical skills is being eroded, and makes us believe in the soul-shattering agony of a decent doctor who learned that his surgical prowess was deviously manipulated as a tool for evil.

"Wide Awake" ("Wide Awake") is not as powerful as it could have been, (I kept thinking while watching it how a straightforward medical drama in the mold of "White Tower" could have been so much superior to all this whodunit stuff) but it is certainly a step in the right direction in that it doesn't pretend to be smarter or more important than it is.

The film is highly recommended to fans of "White Tower" who can't get enough of Kim Myung-min. Kim is just as compelling here playing a goody-two-shoes hero as he was playing the ambitious villain in the TV drama.

☆☆☆

2008 OhmyNews

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