Coma is an ambitious production from popular South Korean movie channel OCN, who I guess is the equivalent of America’s HBO, even practically ripping off their introduction logo verbatim. In association with Seo Film the series collects some promising directors and an almost entirely fresh faced cast as it tells the story of a mysterious event in which five main character are examined over the course of five hourly length episodes.
Ten years ago something strange went on in the operating room of Nam Won Hospital, which today is being prepared for closure. Only a few employees are on hand to oversee things: Dr Jang (Lee Jung-hun), Nurse Kang (Myung Ji-youn), Nurse Han (Jung Bo-hoon) and the hospital director (Jung Jae-jin), each of whom hide a terrible secret which they hope will never be found out. Rather unexpectedly a representative of their insurance company turns up at the hospital. Yoon Young (Lee Se-eun) informs the hospital director that they need to transfer their only patient Lee So-hee (Cha Soo-yeun) to another hospital, but he informs her that that it wouldn’t be a good idea. The hospital has been looking after the comatose woman for ten years and during that time Dr Jang has developed a hopeless obsession for her, which is preventing him from letting her go. Soon enough Yoon Young is drawn deep into things when she begins to recall her days spent at the very same hospital ten years ago with her mother (Cheon Jung-ha), when her sister Hye Young (Bae So-yean) was admitted due to a lengthy illness. Also frequenting the halls is a creepy old janitor (Han Tae-il) and Detective Choi (Lim Won-hee), who has been on a case for quite some time, but finally he may be onto solving one of his toughest investigations.
Coma is as risky as it is fascinating. Taking a non-linear approach toward reaching its imperative conclusion, the entire series is built up of a disjointed narrative which frequents back and forth across the five episodes, bridging a ten year gap and throwing in plenty of twists in relation to that one fateful night which set off this whole sorry state of affairs. While this could have so easily become a disorienting mess the reality is that it meticulously presents itself and never loses sight of its ultimate goal. This makes the series that much more rewarding; we never feel as if we’re being cheated or set up for some inexplicable outcome. Instead the directors, of which there are four, maintain a solid amount of consistency and loyalty throughout the production. Coma has a lot of criteria to meet, dishing out plot turns here and there on a frequent basis, and so it’s great to see that it’s been carefully prepared. The story arc is by far the most intriguing aspect of the entire series, which is why we can overlook some of its weaker elements later on. Essentially it deals with two main storylines that are joined by a commonality and it’s thanks to an interesting roster of characters that we’re drawn into the mystery of it all as we eagerly wait to see how it all pans out.
With each episode we’re presented with a slightly different angle, that which comes from a primary player. At one moment we’re not quite sure where we’re being taken, but then suddenly a particular moment in time will link another’s actions to something that we saw previously. It’s in how their lives are entwined that we can unravel the series’ ambiguities and take note of the key link that they all share. There isn’t a huge cast involved, which might ordinarily make the path somewhat predictable, yet there is enough mystery surrounding character motivations to keep things moving along positively. In addition to this each episode tends to focus on a slightly different theme, despite the series belonging to a single investigation. Mixing a little horror, mystery and detective/thriller aspects, Coma lends itself to several genres, which spices it up and prevents it from ever becoming dull. As such it then delves into particular persons’ mindsets, where we’re shown a myriad of human characteristic flaws: selfishness and greed play a large part, equally as much as medical practices and ethics, involving bribery, drug addictions and abuse, in amongst all this inner circle rivalry and corruption. The lead characters of doctors and nurses aren’t particularly likeable and even Detective Choi, played by one of very few established actors in the series Lim Won-hee, has a ruthless quality about him, along with his own personal demons that will soon present themselves. But Coma isn’t about liking these people, it’s about displaying the cruelty and moral aspects of it all; these lead players are the driving force, most of whom are considerably troubled individuals, and some of whom are entirely mad. Even the people who we should be sympathising with have sinned to a large degree, nobody here is innocent and all will be judged as their personal stories come to a head. Despite this, however, Coma does considerably well in earning our sympathy without the need to ever become manipulative by utilising melodramatic cues and clichéd tactics. These people provide a perfect study for us and it’s somewhat relieving to note that it’s all done in a positive manner. Furthermore it’s wonderfully acted by a relatively unknown cast who know just when to push the right buttons.
Of course it’s the horror element that hinges on whether or not Coma can be deemed a success in its field. Perhaps a victim of pushing this genre too much, it makes its intent seem obvious, though clearly upon viewing it’s more of a tragic drama. Granted, it does rely on scaring the viewer on several occasions, but it’s most certainly one of the more unimaginative inclusions overall. It’s a shame to see Coma conform to typical shock tactics and practically steal ideas from popular Japanese and Korean horror films from past. While it does remarkably well to establish its own identity in terms of presenting an interesting plot and characters it sadly shows its laziness in terms of horror trickery. There is still that feeling that South Korea and Japan can’t shed the imagery made famous by Sadako, which is abundantly clear here with the inclusion of long haired girls in white gowns who walk stiltedly and drag people up through ceilings and so forth, although it’s not too shabbily staged. Saying that though it isn’t entirely without merit; Coma presents some very unsettling moments, depending on your disposition. It’s set in a hospital, therefore expect to see needles and all of those other things that remind you why it is you hate visiting such places. The real star though is the absolutely terrific sound design from Oh Se-yoon, with sound mixing by Park Jong-kun. If the images don’t startle you then the cunning use of ambient surrounds most certainly will. There are some obvious ones, such as the telephone ringing scare, which always annoys me but it still works so damn well. But it’s in the unnerving moaning of the walls that Coma rises to the challenge; screeching, scraping and grinding noises permeate the surrounds, which creates an echoing void that’s bound to see a few goosebumps being raised once the lights go down. Equally as impressive is Choi Seung-hyun’s marvellous score, which is made up of violin and cello concertos; it’s a beautiful piece of work that captures the series’ melancholy sadness so perfectly. Not simply designed to shock, but to compliment its depressive and poignant moments it works on an entirely different level, again staying true to itself and never becoming forced to the point of becoming unbearable.
In the end Coma is a startlingly good mini-series that looks at all kinds of the human facet, it’s underlying themes strengthening an already gripping storyline that manages to deliver something positive in amongst its seemingly cruel intentions. One must overlook any aspects that can instantly be deemed a negative, because overall it has far too many good qualities for it to be dragged down in the mud.
The following episode guides are taken from our affiliate partner Yesasia, with a few corrections having been made.
Birthday Party (dir. Gong Su-chang)
Insurance saleswoman Yoon Young is in charge of the hospital’s last remaining patient Lee So-hee, who is in a coma. While the hospital’s director hopes to avoid taking any responsibility for the patient, chief doctor Jang Seo-won wants to keep the patient there at all costs. Ten years ago, Yoon Young’s young sister disappeared mysteriously and So-hee brings back those memories that she’s tried so hard to forget.
Crack (dir. Cho Gyu-oak)
Kang Su Jin is a veteran nurse in the hospital. She continues to be haunted by an accident that happened ten years ago in the operating room. She wants a fresh new start with chief doctor Jang, but all he seems to care about is the hospital’s only patient, So-hee. Kang tries to find this patient, and learn why she’s stealing so much of her boyfriend’s time.
Necklace (dir. Yoo Jun-suk)
Detective Choi has lost his passion for life, and now pursues money and nothing else. He was in charge of a case ten years earlier, dealing with a girl’s disappearance from the hospital. The only clue he holds is the girl’s necklace. He’s come to the hospital for only one reason: blackmailing the hospital’s director. He needs money to raise his daughter and has to stop this hospital from closing at all costs.
Crimson Red (dir. Kim Jeong-gu)
Designer Hong Ah (Rie Young-jin) has a peculiar talent: she can see dead people. By now she’s gotten used to the blood and horrible corpses, but one day a corpse appears, asking Hong Ah to kill her. She finds out about a patient in the hospital, a certain So-hee who is now in a state of coma.
Doctor, Jang Seo-won (dir. Gong Su-chang)
The hospital’s closure is just a few days away, but chief doctor Jang believes that he can save his last patient, So-hee. Five co-workers are brought together as the series reaches its disturbing conclusion.
Coma comes packaged in an attractively designed three disc digi-pack, which is encased in a nice card slip cover.
Coma is presented with an anamorphic 1.85:1 transfer that can be a little tricky to sum up with its yo-yo tendencies. Filmed in what appears to be digital, it’s subsequently undergone a fair amount of manipulation in order to lose much of its inherent cleanliness. Most of the duration is spent inside the hospital, where things are suitably grim and depressing; a heavy blue tint has been applied which further enhances the sense of entrapment and it’s something that’s been handled fairly well when carried over to DVD. Shadow detail is pleasant and black levels and contrasts appear suitable. Toward the end of the series we do get taken outside, where colours are far more natural, which perhaps shows things at their best and reveal very little in the way of authoring problems. There is a slight amount of edge enhancement, however, and a spot of aliasing, but overall is a nice enough looking transfer.
For sound we get two options: Korean 2.0 Surround and Korean 5.1 Surround. I chose the latter and I can safely say that it’s a wonderful sounding track. The main draw is the brilliant use of ambiance throughout the series, which does more than enough to unnerve the viewer through all kinds of jarring sounds. Much of these creep up on us and others are sudden shocks; there is also a lot of pronounced effects which attempt to tingle the spine, sometimes booming a little too loudly and the series’ score is also put to great use, being channelled quite nicely. There are no issues with dialogue, which retains clarity in its central home. Unfortunately I have to knock off a mark at this point, due to what appears to be a technical error. The disc display syncing problems throughout the series on both tracks provided. While it’s not highly distracting, being that it frequently corrects itself, it is noticeable all the same. Timing of lip movements is slightly off in places and sound effects are also slow on the uptake: Det Choi trying to kick down a locked gate on episode three, with the pounding being delivered about half a second late being such an example. I can’t say for sure if it’s simply down to post dubbing or awkward mastering.
Optional English subtitles are included and despite a few grammatical errors they pose no difficulties.
Disc two contains seven minutes worth of supplemental material in the form of promo spots. Two are teasers for the series and there are also individual promos for each episode. Disc three is where the main stuff can be found. Running for approximately 55 minutes this is your standard making of documentary. It’s quite simply broken down into five chapters, each one representing a different episode and therefore featuring the actor specific to it. In between the occasional chat we see the directors at work and the actors working hard. The feature seems to overlook certain other aspects, such as music and sound design, but it seems decent enough. Unfortunately there are no English subtitles.
Coma isn’t an easy series to review, mainly because it’s so spoiler intense and I have no intention to discuss it in any great detail as it would truly spoil things for the interested reader. I do hope though that I’ve made the series sound enticing enough for those reading to check it out. It appears as if it’ll be ridiculously overlooked, which would be too bad because it’s one of the better efforts that has combined horror and drama to have come out of South Korea in some time.