This 2010 South Korean comedy-horror thriller, the debut co-written and self-directed effort from youngsters Owen Cho and Kim Sang-hwa, delivers an original and, in theory, amusing twist on the standard violent revenge thriller format in that its two hate-filled principle combatants have both been physically incapacitated before the action even starts, and are thus confined to (rather dingy-looking) hospital beds for the duration of the film as they attempt (with great effort) to find ingenious ways of trying to off each other without their devoted nurse and carer cottoning on to what they’re really up to!
Perhaps because some of the ironic dialogue doesn’t always translate too well (and you seem to have to know a fair bit about the ins and outs of South Korean baseball to make sense of many of the reference points), the film often struggles to balance its slick torture-porn-meets-David-Fincher visual aesthetic, skilfully imitated by cinematographer Choi Chan-min, with the absurdist humour that comes along with the premise but which remains curiously low-key for most of the run time. The UK DVD release from Terracotta Distribution has given the film something of a marketing make-over, changing the title from its rather ungainly English translation of “Enemy at the Dead End” and giving the impression, with a slightly misleading DVD cover, that this is a standard, all-action revenge fest, when actually any interest it has for the viewer derives mainly from some worthy performances from the film’s two leads, who have to carry the movie and define its character through facial expression and emotion alone -- and thus, really have to sell its high concept premise through the construction of believable characters placed in an unreal situation.
Min-ho (Chun Ho-jin of “I saw the Devil”) has suffered a paralysing stroke brought on by a string of suicide attempts after the murder of his wife, and is now confined to a hospital bed and a wheelchair under the supervision of a pretty and ever-cheerful nurse called Miss Ha (Seo Hyo-rim). The hospital happens to be situated on top of a picturesque cliff, affording extra opportunities for flinging one’s self to one’s doom, so Min-ho’s doctors are holding off on the physical therapy until they’ve cured him of his suicidal impulses with a course of convulsive electro-shock therapy! All Min-ho wants to do is to die. But despite his best efforts he keeps on hanging on while a succession of luckier roommates fall away in his stead, the victims of their injuries or of failed attempts to save them through surgery. Then one day, Min-ho wakes to find a new patient occupying the bed at his side: an amnesiac and cripple who recently received traumatic head injuries in a car crash that required emergency brain surgery. The patient may not remember who he is, but Min-ho recognises him as Sang-up (Yoo Hae-jin, “Blood Rain”) – the man responsible for killing his wife!
Min-ho’s ensuing desperation for revenge, frustratingly combined with an inability to move more than an inch at a time, is offset by Sang-up’s initially hugely delicate post-surgery state (‘even a push could kill him’ confides a nurse, unwisely) in order to provide the film with some subtle black comedy as Min-ho sets about attempting to utilise the small amount of movement he has available in his wrist to bounce a coffee cup off the ceiling fan above his bed, while attempting to judge the angle needed to give it just the right trajectory in order to be able to bonk Sang-ho on his bandaged head with it and thus hopefully finish him off for good.
Sang-ho at first cannot remember who he is or anything about his past, and has no idea why the wild-eyed, grey-haired man next to him keeps trying to kill him; and thanks to his head injury, he reawakens each morning always having completely forgotten everything about the previous day’s attempts by his neighbour to do away with him. Min-ho now has a reason to live though, and so manages to persuade Nurse Ha that he has changed his attitude to life (thanks to his newfound friendship with his best buddy in the next bed along) and can now be assigned physical therapy: cue montage of Min-ho laboriously attempting to move his fingers with the aid of weights attached, to a soundtrack of screaming hard rock! However, the mysterious authority in charge of the hospital then chooses Min-ho and Sang-up to be the two test subjects in a trial of a new wonder drug called AAP, which will supposedly speed up their recovery by regenerating severed nerves. Now Min-ho is involved in a race against time: attempting to get better before Sang-ho regains his formidable strength and before he remembers exactly who he is and what he has done, thus denying Min-ho his last shot at revenge!
The existence of the unseen ‘Miss Paik’, who apparently runs the AAP trial, hints that there is more going on here plot-wise than at first meets the eye, and the drug’s hallucinatory side-effects are an obvious case of the two writer-directors awarding themselves some extra leeway in order to be able to indulge in middle-act-filling shock set-pieces which they can later backtrack from by springing the predictable it-was-all-an-hallucination get-out clause. But they largely get away with such tactics -- even if the third act twist is just a little bit limp and in the end falls oddly flat -- thanks to the principle actors, who really make this scenario come alive with their extremely watchable take on the script’s idiosyncratic cache of characters. Chun Ho-jin’s twitchy portrayal of supressed frustrations at his bed-neighbour’s resilience in the face of numerous assassination failures, and his increasingly sly qualities, expressed when he’s meticulously organising means of secretly purloining items he can use in future attempts, are vividly conveyed in the actor’s stoic yet pained expressions, which manage to suggest inner turmoil bubbling beneath a still-pond exterior. Yoo Hae-jin, meanwhile, is afforded an excellent opportunity here for alternating comedy goofing with outbursts of brooding menace during the course of executing his particular role: Sang-up is a dopey but likable idiot when stuck in his traumatised amnesiac persona, but as flashes of memory relating to his past life and his former relationship with Min-ho begin to occur thanks to the drug therapy they’re both being administered, a malevolent attitude towards his neighbour starts to surface with increasing ferocity, and it soon becomes clear that Sang-up is equally as determined to kill Min-ho, for some reason, as the grieving stroke patient is to do away with him; yet, with each new day, after increasingly violent struggles as their movement and strength sporadically return to them, the ‘idiot’ Sang-up seems to return once more -- with his annoying ‘goooood mooooorning’ greeting and no memory of his violent actions the night before! The beautiful Seo Hyo-rim also helps to offset the more serious and violent moments with her likable, slightly naive and dippy Nurse Ha, oblivious to the secret drama that’s going on behind her back.
The cinematography and editing (by Nam Na-Young) aim and largely succeed in bringing the distinctive, grungy “Se7en”/”Saw” strata of green-lit neo noir-style aesthetics vividly to the screen and the jumpy editing executed during a climactic and very bloody battle between the two central characters might be seen as something of a joke at the expense of such stylisation, seeing as how the fight involves two people who can barely move, dragging themselves slowly around a hospital ward floor; this visual style also means that the film ends up with the weirdest-looking hospital set imaginable, its white corridors perpetually semi-lit, and brooding shadows looming everywhere. By evolving the plot across the ninety minute running time, adding a series of mini-twists to the scenario that keep it fresh, “Desire to Kill” provides just enough suspense, mystery and the occasional blackly comic laugh, to make the film a perfectly watchable time filler but it’s not among the upper echelons of the innovative, post-Old Boy South Korean exports that have been starting to find an appreciative audience in the West in the last few years. The UK DVD provides it with a decent enough transfer and a choice of 5.1 surround sound and stereo 2.0 audio tracks, while extras are pretty light -- consisting of short interviews with two of the cast that don’t tell you anything much and a few minutes of raw behind-the-scenes footage. The disc also includes trailers for current and upcoming Terracotta titles, and some promotional material for the label’s film festival.