Koma (Jiu ming)

Hong Kong (2004) Dir. Law Chi-Leung

Two women fighting over a man – how bad will that turn out? In the hands of Law Chi-Leung VERY bad indeed, although suggesting this is the central premise of this chilling psychological drama is a bit misleading. There is a love triangle involved but one would be hard pressed to find one which ends up this bloody.

Ching (Angelica Lee) has a few drinks too many at a friend’s wedding held in a hotel and. While staggering around the hallways Ching falls through an open door of a room and finds a naked woman (April Tung), bleeding profusely from a deep cut on her side, having had her kidney removed. Ching tells the police of a woman she saw walking away from the hotel.

That woman is Ling (Karena Lam) and she confronts Ching, admitting to sleeping with Ching’s doctor boyfriend Wai (Andy Hui Chi-On). Ling then begins to stalk Ching, saying she will take Ching’s kidney – a worthless threat as Ching has renal failure and needs a transplant herself. When Ling save Ching from the real kidney thief, the pair inexplicably becomes friends. Then Ching gets a call from her abductor offering her a new kidney.

While there are some irritating plot holes and bewildering contrivances to expediate the plot developments in this brisk 84 minute film, Susan Chan’s screenplay, based on a story by Sin Ling Yeung, manages to breathe new life (and death) into a formulaic three way romance yarn, with more twists packed into it than Chubby Checker has performed in his entire career.

The main conceit is obviously trying to determine Ling’s true personality. She starts the film as a curious distant observer at the wedding then a ghostly fleeting presence in the hotel hallways and finally unexpected love rival inside five minutes. Her surly, dowdy appearance and aloof body language doesn’t immediately suggest friend or girlfriend material but does give off sinister vibes.

Ling doesn’t waste time with the phone threats to Ching but with her named already cleared by the police, Ling has the upper hand. Her affair with Wai is revealed to be purely functional as Ching’s condition has hit her body confidence and she refuses to sleep with Wai, so, in exchange for the money she needs to keep her comatose mother in hospital, Ling obliges Wai in that manner.

So far it sounds like your average melodrama but Law isn’t interested in given us such a conventional story, hence the unnerving nature of Ling’s mental torture of Ching. In a scene borrowed straight of the Freddy Krueger playbook, Ching dreams that someone broke into her house, cut the phone line, flipped over a photo of her and finally entered her bedroom and began cutting her open. But was it just a dream?  

By now we are firmly hooked by Law’s bait and switch while Ling ups the torment to appearing wherever Ching goes. It is not until Ching is abducted and about to cut open that she reveals her medical condition, making a deliciously ironic mockery of Ling’s campaign against her. The swerves no begin in earnest as Ching awakens to find an injured Ling net to her, claiming she fight off the abductor and an unexpected friendship is born.

As daft as this sounds the script once again plays it cool, allows things to develop slowly and naturally between the two erstwhile enemies, so by the time we’ve finished rolling our eyes in disbelief, it does become a credible friendship in our eyes. The question is can it last? The answer already developed in your head is almost certainly going to be the correct one, but again, it is how it happens is the magic of the storytelling.

With the curveballs coming non-stop even the predictable becomes unpredictable, or at the very least, retains an element of surprise. Aside from the deft writing the key is in Law’s direction and presentation, approaching a superficially regular drama like a horror film. It pays off with the beautiful misdirection provided by the most innocent of cutaways, suggesting it means more than it actually does while the obvious is staring us right in the face.

By keeping the camera intimate and often invasive the tension felt by the characters is palpable for the audience too, while the quick cut edits create a sense of dread and rising hysteria without needing to resort to a stirring musical overture to signify the mood. The atmosphere is relentlessly brooding even in the lighter moments as Law has conditioned us to expect the unexpected on so many occasions.

Perhaps it is the transfer on this DVD but this doesn’t look a film made in 2004, sharing the hazy veneer of late 80’s, early 90’s HK cinema. Yet this adds an edge to the experience, never compromising the impact of the superb shot compositions littered throughout. Law is fond of obtuse angles that look impossible but tell the story perfectly, while possessing an eye for capturing visually stunning tableau that make the most of the surroundings.

Law can also be thankful for two excellent leads in Angelica Lee and Karena Lam, both of whom inhabit their characters with an acute sense of awareness and understanding of their complex personalities. Lee is able to make Ching sympathetic yet annoying gullible and often brattish with it, while Lam is able to keep us guessing about Ling, convincingly softening her up after her devilish opening gambit.

Koma is more than a psycho drama-cum-pseudo slasher horror by toying with the morality behind illegal organ selling, an aspect which isn’t pushed as prominently as perhaps it should yet looms over the entire story like an ominous black cloud, visible enough to make us re-examine the core values of the tale from a different perspective.

The only other Law Chi-Leung film I have seen is 2012’s The Bullet Vanishes, another multi-layered thriller which revels in the portent of things to come Koma wonderfully demonstrates.