Whilst watching Koma I found myself thinking of New Order’s song ‘Bizarre Love Triangle’. Though Koma is essentially a rather stylish – and, perhaps not incidentally, somewhat hollow – amalgamation of horror, thriller and urban legend, the crux of the story is the triangular relationship between a doctor, his fiancé and a woman who may be behind a series of very nasty thefts. The thefts in question are not of material possessions – the robber has in fact been stealing from the human body: namely the kidney(s) of women who have had the misfortune of imbibing a spiked drink and upon regaining consciousness finding that something more than their jewellery has been taken. The inspiration, I gather, came from a widely circulated rumour on (surprise, surprise) the internet a few years back, which has subsequently been disproved as complete fiction. The urban legend – there’s no better description for it – told of people awakening in bathtubs full of ice, completely bewildered as to how they go there and equally confused to find a message on the wall – usually daubed on their own blood – exhorting them to ‘call the police, or you’ll die!’. Upon closer inspection they realise that they’ve an incision on their hip and that their kidney has been purloined. Nasty stuff: but gruesomely interesting material for a horror film.
It begins promisingly: after the haunting title track that rolls sonorously over the opening credits, we descend – via a virtuous tracking shot worthy of De Palma – on a hotel wedding reception, the kind where it’s immediately clear that everybody is both very drunk and very wealthy. One of the bridesmaids, Ching, is lucky enough to catch the bouquet, completely oblivious to the baleful stare she’s being given by a sodden bystander, a woman who’s gate-crashed the party and is looking exceptionally disgruntled. Later, another woman – never named – awakens in the already described ice-bath and makes the double discovery that not only has her kidney been stolen but the wretch that took it did an extremely poor job of stitching up the wound. By a sheer twist of cinematic fate, the inebriated Ching happens to stumble into the woman’s hotel room – from which she flees very quickly upon discovering the blood bespattered interior. Later, when interviewed by the police (who are every bit as incompetent as one would expect for a thriller) she locates on the CCTV footage a woman whom she saw hurriedly departing from a hotel room moments before she happened upon the crime scene
Ling (as she is known) is, not coincidentally, also the woman who was glaring malevolently at Ching in the opening scene. Ling is taken in for questioning but gets a quick release as there’s scant evidence against her and it’s suspected that Ching may be lying. Ling, as it turns out, has been having an affair with Ching’s fiancé, Wai, and turned up at the hotel purely to size up the competition. Ching – who is characteristic of every Asian horror leading lady in being both attractive and the only person with one iota of intelligence – is unconvinced and furious with both the police and Wai. Ching’s situation, not all too surprisingly, goes from bad to worse as she starts to receive some very unpleasant phone calls from Ling, words to the effect of ‘Shall I come for your kidney now?’
From this point on the story begins to twist in every conceivable direction, so I’ll refrain from divulging further plot details. Gore aficionados will almost certainly derive plenty of entertainment from this very bloody film, but it also has enough points of recommendation to warrant investigation by more casual Asian horror fans. As is so often the case with Asian cinema, the film is rife with stylish techniques and visual inventiveness and in many instances the direction truly shines. It is not, in truth, a particularly frightening movie: there are plenty of ‘jump’ moments but the most disquieting scene occurs at the film’s beginning with the revelation in the bathtub. Some impressive set-pieces excellently ratchet up the tension but often end rather bathetically, however the film’s grisly climax is well-paced and the ending is courageous in its refusal to resort to a sappy cop-out. There’s some good acting on display: Angelica Lee manages to oscillate smoothly between affection and flightiness as Ching, Kar Yan Lam is nicely ambiguous as the enigmatic Ling and the two have convincing – to use that hideously overused word – ‘chemistry’, which considering the dramatic turns their relationship has to take over the course of the film is vital.
Koma in many respects ought to be distinctive from its more generic Asian horror peers. We don’t have a serial killer on the loose, nor are any malignant spirits at work – instead we have a psychological thriller with plenty of good ‘boo’ moments and quite an unsettling premise. Unfortunately the film never quite reaches its potential; its short runtime (86 minutes) often works to the film’s detriment, conferring a rather rushed feel upon the action. It’s occasionally a little incoherent – a creepy nocturnal visit by persons unknown to Ching’s household yields little in the way of consequences – and it never quite plumbs the psychological depths it could have with the difficult relationship between the three amorously entangled parties. Perhaps the film’s most basic flaw is its mishandling of the organ-theft plot conceit: it never really rises above being a repellent gimmick and consequently the film suffers and eventually slips into a course well-trodden by so many horror films before it.
Tartan continues to be one of the best suppliers of Asian cinema (via their Asia Extreme label) but unfortunately still provide erratically when it comes to good A/V presentations.
The picture, for so recent a film, is definitely mediocre. There’s an abundance of ghosting (see below capture) which shouldn’t be directly visible on a normal TV screen but nonetheless contributes to the image having a rather blurred and jerky appearance. This is might be the result of a NTSC to PAL transfer (a recurring problem with Tartan DVDs) but since PAL speed-up appears to be present on the UK DVD – the R1 DVD has a runtime of 88 minutes, the R2 comes in at 86 minutes – it could be the case that this is simply a non-progressive or interlaced transfer. In either case it’s not especially good: there’s a great deal of small flecks of print damage and the colours look a little faded and washed-out. The R1 DVD (also by Tartan) may well be a better bet.
The sound is sadly not much of an improvement. As is customary of Tartan, three audio tracks have been provided: DTS, Dolby 5.1 and 2.0 stereo. Koma has a rather good and atmospheric soundtrack and when the music is loud – as it often is in the film’s tenser moments – all the audio tracks deliver the goods. Unfortunately during the quieter moments problems arise. There’s a lot of background noise in many scenes; I presume this was intentional but unfortunately it’s rather distracting. In some sequences there’s some nasty audio hiss as well. Often the soundtracks feel rather diffuse, with background noise being at a greater volume to onscreen dialogue. Overall none of these tracks are anything more than satisfactory in their presentation of the film’s audio.
There’s nothing here to get particularly excited about. The fifteen minute ‘documentary’ is your typical promotion piece: a medley of bland behind the scenes footage and talking-heads. Everyone is highly complimentary of one another, so much so that very little is established other than how wonderful it was for the lead actresses to get to work with this talented new director!
The commentary is, quite frankly, awful. There are intermittent patches of silence which actually provide something of a respite from the insipid drone of Chi-Leung Law’s voice. He offers a few mildly interesting points – such as the fact that the ice cubes in the bath were real and that the actress had to suffer for her art by spending extensive periods of time in them – but otherwise this a very dull commentary, punctuated by moments of unintended hilarity. To be fair, I get the impression Law is quite inexperienced at giving commentaries, which no doubt accounts for his gauche insistence in prefacing every sentence with ‘I think it’s really interesting that’ or ‘I really like that in this scene’ and ‘I think actress X gives a great performance here, with her eyes’. There are some – unintentionally – amusing moments: Law’s determination to obliterate any undertones of lesbianism (‘I thought if they got too into it, they’d start kissing’), his beliefs about portraying fear (‘if you tremble, that means you’re afraid’) and his disquisition on the benefits of special effects (‘people often don’t realise you can’t use the camera for everything: sometimes you have to use special effects to show things that you can’t show in the real world’).
Not quite on par with Mariah Carey then, but getting there.
As an addition to the rapidly expanding Asian horror canon, Koma is a worthwhile – if unspectacular – entry. While it offers little in the way of novelty, it is nonetheless a well-crafted thriller-cum-horror flick that has enough in the way of shocks to keep you mostly entertained for its short duration. Tartan’s disc is rather poor and something of a disappointment, as they obviously have not taken such care in their presentation of a film they probably deemed of inferior importance.