Koma (2004)

Directed by: Law Chi Leung
Written by: Susan Chan
Producer: Lawrence Cheng
Starring: Angelica Lee, Karena Lam, Andy Hui, Raymond Wong, Roy Chow, Liu Kai Chi & Annie Man

Buy the DVD at:
HK Flix.com

Nominations at the Hong Kong Film Awards 2005:
Best Actress (Karena Lam)
Best Sound Design (Kinson Tsang)

Familiar. That's a thought that runs through ones head while attending Law Chi Leung's Koma where he's again, just as Inner Senses, exploring horror territory. To its credit, there's only one film Koma largely borrows from (one fans of Korean cinema will be quick to recognize) and more scattershot references to other horror works from the past few years subsequently makes up the narrative. That makes it instantly better than most Hong Kong horror efforts lately as it attempts to be more its own. One of the inherent problems, which makes Koma halt at partly highly recommend but hugely only recommended is the fact that the filmmakers decided to take the slippery road, narrative wise. And that they're having problems with.

In a drunken stupor during a hotel wedding reception, Ching (Angelica Lee) stumbles into an hotel room where a woman, drenched in blood is crawling along the floor. It turns out she's one of the many victims lately who have had their kidneys removed, presumably to be sold on the black market. Having witnessed a mysterious woman just prior to her discovery, Ching points her out later in a police lineup. She is Suen Ling (Karena Lam) and she has it out for Ching, with a vengeance. Despite her aggressive behaviour, she is soon dismissed from the investigation but continues to harass Ching. Secrets are subsequently revealed that has many connections to the past, including to Ching's boyfriend Fung (Andy Hui)...

Not that Susan Chan's script (Law's writing partner on Till Death Do Us Part) isn't competent or the direction by Law Chi Leung for that matter either. Because you can easily set aside the obvious plot device lifted from Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance and get on with it but after a first half, that is firmly on an open straight road, Chan and Law brings us onto an icy one where only two of the wheels seem attached to the surface. How's that for symbolism?

As a character piece, Koma does some decent things, bringing in themes of loneliness and desperation. A theme that's reexamined by Chan and Law after the two co-wrote the screenplay for the mentioned Till Death Do Us Part (directed by Daniel Lee). That journey lies in Angelica Lee's Ching but not as fully explored, intentionally, as in that film. For Koma it creates a sometimes touching aura as the closer ones around Ching abandons her because of her being diagnosed with kidney failure and it becomes a bleak, downbeat piece because of this content obviously when you look at it.

Now, Law is aiming higher, no doubt about it, but it soon becomes quite apparent that there's maybe one too many goals set up and even when the first half is clearly told and executed, with flair I might add, Law stumbles upon hurdles when he's bringing Ching and Ling closer to each other as characters. I wish I could say what was inherently wrong here but what I can say that it isn't as full on gripping as it attempts to be. The emotions do resonance in sporadic bursts and towards the end but this flip flopping in quality, not confusion, proves to be a bit frustrating throughout.

It's not that Law's direction, and technical execution, thoroughly saves the movie either but after all, he's been a protégé, and been supported by Derek Yee over the years. Koma marks the first time he's not backed up by him and perhaps Law is left alone a wee bit too early. Yee, as a director, has not been Hong Kong cinemas visual thinker number one but rather a fine storyteller. Visually, but not overbearingly so, Law actually holds his own rather terrifically throughout. There's that suitable combination of storytelling and drawing in audiences visually on display and the film looks absolutely dynamite throughout, despite being a small scale film story- and character-wise. Chan Chi Ying's (Elixir Of Love) calm cinematography allows us to study the frame, look for clues, and it's a nigh on perfect example of why you don't need to be MTV to grab the audiences attention. Law does that fine with the horror, which will probably leave a slight harrowing effect on many viewers, thanks to some excellent usage of effects. Law isn't afraid to let us look at nasty wounds in close-up's, have us watch actors puke or shed blood and it's remarkable how he can leave an effect when he in fact does very little as a matter of fact. He also, maybe overly so, fills the design with red everywhere but its meaning isn't any more deeper than the obvious.

Koma is a case though where performances, even if the final movie comes with flaws, lifts it securely into that decent-territory. On board, Law has two of the most engaging female performers in Hong Kong cinema currently and they are creating themselves a wonderful track record; Angelica Lee and Karena Lam. Lee has been acting scared convincingly prior in The Eye and she takes what isn't terribly much on paper and gives us an expected solid performance but still remarkably unexpected considering the young age of this Malaysian actress. There are only select times where Ching's loneliness is touched upon but it does come off as believable in the hands of Lee. Karena Lam, providing the requisite psycho character, has been directed much towards that very behaviour, which in reality is all too familiar (although The Shining reference in the film unexpectedly belongs to Lee). That and the coldness to Ling becomes quite engaging in the hands of Karena though. It's an easy to direction to give since the character, in her own words, is a bitch longing for love but Lam brings the limited traits home. Don't look for any awards down the line for this but the pairing proves largely excellent despite. Liu Kai Chi (Fu Bo, Infernal Affairs II) and Raymond Wong co-stars (the overactor of the piece but at least they made him look a little different for this one).

What Law Chi Leung does with Koma isn't remarkable and his first outing without the reliable Derek Yee by his side proves to be a little too much for him to handle. He has trouble balancing the story at all times but in a minor way brings the correct emotions to the viewer after 90 minutes. His technical direction is rather terrific though, with an emphasize on a suitable calm, style and doing that in combination with telling a story decently...well...it deserves some form of kudos don't you think?

The DVD:

Panorama presents the film in a 1.78:1 framed anamorphically enhanced transfer. A few of the long shots reveal lacking detail and blacks are weak at times. Overall it's a fine presentation nonetheless.

The Cantonese Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround track is effective when needed. The sound design for this horror atmosphere comes through nicely, as well as dialogue. A Cantonese Dolby Digital 5.1, Cantonese DTS 5.1 and Mandarin Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks are also included.

The English subtitles are virtually flawless in terms of grammar and seems to its job well throughout. A single set of Chinese subtitles are also included.

Extras include a 15 minute, 27 second making of. Only Chinese subtitles are provided so not much can be enjoyed (other than the behind the scenes footage) if you don't speak or read Chinese. Remaining supplements consists of Cantonese and Mandarin language MTV's of the Karena Lam song that accompanies the end credits of the film. The trailer, also with Cantonese and Mandarin options, is also included.

reviewed by Kenneth Brorsson