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Wide Awake

Genius Products // Unrated // August 12, 2008
List Price: $24.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Thomas Spurlin | posted August 29, 2008 | E-mail the Author
There's a scene in Kyu-man Lee's Wide Awake where a young boy, who is clearly deranged due to post-op stress disorder because of botched anesthetics, sets a box of live baby chickens on the ground and proceeds to hurl one of them full-force into a tree. It's a metaphorical and demonstrative act of disregard towards life's meaningfulness, which is understandable following an experience where you feel every ounce of pain from an operation. Then, he proceeds to chuck chick after chick from the box against the tree -- followed by a cat scurrying over to lick up the blood. This series of events encapsulates the entire state of Wide Awake as a film; though it displays some aptly thought-out concepts in a grueling fashion, the momentum it generates to try and jerk around its audience throttles long passed the point of comprehension and over into the realm of extreme excess.

The Film:

First and foremost, you should probably prepare for rapid processing of a slew of whirlwind events unfolding on-screen once you set foot in Wide Awake. It's a mystery of sorts that repeatedly flashes between modern-day 2007 Korea and the series of activities that took place in 1982 involving Sung-u, a boy beset with "anesthetic awareness" during his heart surgery. Every slice of a scalpel, every grind of the rotary saw, and every singe of the electrocautery device (had to have a bit of help with that one) can be felt in the boy's insides. Reading the synopsis for the film was enough to give me chills; watching the procedure within the first five (5) or so minutes of the film reinforced exactly why the idea of a well-produced Korean drama / horror film about the subject would have that effect.

What I was expecting (or wanting) was something akin to a character dissection that followed the boy as he grew into a man dealing with the stress disorder that would result. Aside from some disturbing flashbacks into only the hardcore moments of his childhood, Wide Awake steps away from character analysis and takes its audience through a jerky mystery thriller set 25 years later. Details are intentionally made foggy for the viewer, which constructs a "guessing game" dynamic that pushes the viewer to sort through a short list of characters in an effort to identify the tormented boy. This is because, as we would discover, the now-grown man seems to be running around murdering each and every doctor and nurse who was involved in the procedure. On another curious note, our focal doctor Jae-u Ryu's wife has begun receiving eerie calls from a man threatening to end her life. It all seems too coincidental to not be related. For these reasons, Wide Awake reminded me of a discombobulated and empty concoction that blends influences from such films as Se7en and Saw.

It might also reflect those films because of the grotesque energy revolving around the chills it sends out regarding death, anesthetics, and doctoral conflicts. Some of its more compelling moments stand centered in the disagreements between several doctors regarding the use of traditional anesthetics and hypno-anesthesia as an alternative. An interesting plot mechanism surfaces once the film slowly steers our attention towards the concept that there might be a doctor performing anesthesia who, as scary as it might sound to us medically-bound organisms, is a deranged victim of a botched procedure. It doesn't hurt that the main focal character is a young, talented surgeon with an intermittently empty disposition that could be caused by such a torrid past. Then again, his doctoral colleague recklessly mistreats the fragility of life, his wild-eyed friend from his youth seems voracious for something primal, and his bizarre anesthetic colleague carries an anti-chemical-anesthesia persona. The vengeful killer could be one of these men -- while it very well could be none of them.

Here begins the excess. Wide Awake takes this thoughtfully disheartening mechanic filled with well-represented scientific bases and conducts relentless exploitation of the subject matter in an effort to entwine the narrative with excessive murderous plot twists. One or two is fine; however, just like watching baby chick after baby chick hit the trunk of the tree, the film plugs along with such brash anarchy by rewiring our comprehension so many times that you just stop caring about any of the remaining mystery. Eventually, the process of trying to keep track of the story's many kinks and spins can best be related to following a single electrical chord in a rat's nest of like-colored cables. Don't get me wrong; a good murder mystery with plenty of twists is a great thing, but keeping track of this murder mystery is more like a dagger-sized thorn in the rear that lacks the justification for all the grief that it causes. Ultimately, all of the chaos does come to a overblown finite resolution that tries to answer the countless myriad of questions -- but it's so far-fetched that it instill that sickening "jerked around for nothing" feeling. What keeps you watching, instead of just bleeping it off in frustrated disbelief and chucking the remote against the wall, is a range of well-executed performances and a chillingly strong production base that enhances the stark photography both inside the operating rooms and out. To say the least, it's a sturdily-crafted dramatic horror effort with this keen eye for aesthetic tangibility that'll give you quite a few skin-crawling moments. Even the science behind director Kyu-man Lee's film accurately exposes a real fear in frightening light, which would've made Wide Awake's grotesquely morbid nature all the more interesting if the persistent plot twists were such a deterrent. It's all not enough, however, to save the blinding chaos spewing from Wide Awake's erratic rhythm. This is just a spitefully unlikeable experience, and that's coming from somebody who relishes in many films cut from similar cloths.

The DVD:

Genius Products have continued their line of highly-welcomed domestic Korean releases with this presentation of Wide Awake, adorned with snazzy coverart that carries over to a cardboard slipcover.

The Video:

Wide Awake, as harped upon earlier, is a visually lurid experience that replicates fairly well over to its 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. Detail and sharpness levels are quite high in its image, but one of its hindrances for a sharp image is a fair amount of edge enhancement. Halos can be spotted against many contours, whether we're talking about darker or lighter backgrounds. It probably has something to do with the overblown visual style of the film, one that cranks up the contrast to terribly high levels in certain spots. Another element that pulled my eyesight was a distinct level of digital grain visible, which really didn't hurt the visual experience terribly much. The only other questionable element comes in the small black sliver on the left side of the negative, though it doesn't really detract during normal viewing sessions either. Outside of those nit-picky flaws, everything from color solidity in a shifting sepia-to-ice color palette to sharpness levels looks just fine.

The Audio:

One prominent element that went un-discussed in the film portion of the review was the nice atmospheric score, which happens to be the richest portion of Wide Awake's solid Korean Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track. That's not to saw that the whirrs of the sawblades and the sizzling of the suction repair tool aren't crisp and clear, which they are; the score just adds a ton of personality to the film, which pours through great in the minimalistic sound design. Verbal clarity is fine, while the other louder sound effects are handled well. It's not a boisterous sounding film, but the dynamics utilized her are quite good. Only optional English subtitles are available here, as always (which aren't half bad, though there's a little bit of translation flubbing in spots).

The Extras:

Supplemental material for Wide Awake is welcome, primarily in discovering how the crew achieved such a textured and realistic feel with its gritty production values. Motives behind crafting such a disturbing film do help with the context, but ultimately don't rectify the unsatisfied taste in my mouth. Here's what we've got in the package:

Memory Returned - The Making of Wide Awake:
Sitting at just a shade above 38 minutes, this making-of feature is a whole heck of a lot of Wide Awake. Blended with plenty of face time with our director and cast, this is an in-depth featurette that really covers the behind-the-scenes activity and conceptual elements of the film. It's a little overblown for its own good, as much of the off-set material could've either been trimmed down a bit or allocated to another portion of the supplements. Overall, there are several spans where you just want the piece to speed along and get to the next segment of discussion, but its thoroughness is commendable.

Production Design Featurette:
Definitely the most fascinating of the special features, this piece focuses on the production designer and her creative ideas behind Wide Awake. Lots of still photographs and interview time mirror the making-of featurette, but hearing about how they crafted elements like the child's torso at the beginning of the film to the application of skin prosthetics are all captivating. There's a ridiculous amount of meticulousness behind the assembly of Wide Awake, which really screams out here.

Anesthesia Awareness: About Interoperational Awareness:
This featurette is almost akin to a Korean-language in-motion article on the scientific validity behind the film's disturbing central plot point. After seeing the film, I was confused by how accurate some of these occurrences could be. Once I read a bit into anesthetic awareness to check out the reality of this occurrence, it disturbed me. It ranges in severity, of course, but it looks like it can get nearly as bad as the film implies.

Also includes are some wisely-clipped Deleted Scenes and some generic Actor Interviews.


Final Thoughts:

Wide Awake provided one of the more difficult instances of objective judgment that I've had to make. It's a very competently assembled drama / horror hybrid with some unique themes lying underneath, but the floundering repetition of unnecessary plot twists and an erratic sense of buoyancy regarding its dramatic integrity made Kyu-man Lee's pins-and-needles flick harder to stomach. For its stronger merits, meaning an incredible production focus and an abnormally tangible performance from the cast as a whole, Wide Awake still presents a compelling idea in a competent yet overwhelmingly somber way. Watching this film again, on the other hand, would be borderline masochistic -- thus making Wide Awake a clean and clear Rental.

Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site
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