Wide Awake takes one of the real-life medical mysteries — patients who remain fully conscious (and responsive to pain) but paralyzed during operations, called “intraoperative awareness” — and weaves a revenge-motivated mystery plot around it. (According to experts this happens shockingly more often than we think — approximately 20,000 to 40,000 surgery patients in North America every year suffer through this experience, among whom about 30% can feel acute pain) The film opens with a young boy completely traumatized by his heart operation, the experience of feeling a scalpel cutting into his chest, a bone saw whine-grinding into his sternum (ick!), and doctor’s fingers rummaging through the insides of his body. Adding insult to injury no one believes his story: it’s 1980s Korea, after all. 25 years later, the doctors and nurses who had operated on him begin to die mysteriously. Ryu Jae-woo (Kim Myung-min, Sorum, Into the Mirror), a conscientious surgeon happily married to the beautiful Hee-jin (Kim Yu-mi), begins to suspect the operation-traumatized boy from his childhood is behind these deaths. The prime suspects are Lee Myeong-suk (Kim Roe-ha, Memories of Murder), stalking Dr. Ryu for failing to save his wife, and the seemingly unhinged Uk-hwan (Yu Jun-sang, Tell Me Something’s second victim). The hypnosis specialist Oh Chi-hoon (Kim Tae-hoo, Epitaph) also seems to be on to some information about the culprit.
Wide Awake Even though a similar-themed Hollywood film (Awake, with Jessica Alba) was released a few months after it, the long shadow cast on Wide Awake is in fact that of the ultra-popular, Japanese-novel-based medical drama White Tower, through which Kim Myung-min was finally launched into the stardom that he had so far found elusive. It is not accidental, therefore, that the “medical drama” aspect of the movie is many times more fascinating than the murder mystery.
The filmmakers, including newcomer director Lee Gyu-man and co-screenwriter Lee Hyun-jin, spin their yarn as a straightforward whodunit: a crime has been committed, we are given clues to the possible motive, a load of technically complicated but authentic-sounding information regarding the exotic methods of murder are provided, and all this is nicely resolved at the end with the minimum of “what the heck?” confusion. Unfortunately, pacing is rather slack and the mystery is not as well thought-out as it should have been: the climactic big revelation especially is not handled well, relying on the considerable talents of the film’s stars to get by (I must say, too, that hypnotism is definitely being over-used by Korean thrillers as a plot device). It should be said in the film’s defense that, like Black House’s gutsy Grand Guignol finale, the film does feature one act of revenge, which, like the more famous one in Old Boy, makes instinctive logical sense and is truly devastating in its supreme cruelty.
But all this would have been for naught had director Lee chosen the wrong actors. None of the leads are asked to do anything extraordinary but they inhabit their frankly two-dimensional roles with admirable professionalism and requisite conviction. In particular, few people will doubt Kim Myung-min’s ability to carry a whole picture after Wide Awake: he does a superb job of conveying the self-doubt of a doctor whose faith in his medical skills is being eroded, and makes us believe in the soul-shattering agony of a decent Hippocratite who learned that his surgical prowess was deviously manipulated as a tool for evil.
Wide Awake is not as powerful as it could have been, (I kept thinking while watching it how a straightforward medical drama in the mold of White Tower could have been so superior to all this whodunit stuff) but it is certainly a step in the right direction, in that it doesn’t pretend to be smarter or more important than it is. The film is definitely recommended to fans of White Tower, which probably would be its biggest constituency in East Asia, at least for the time being.