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South Korea 2007

Thriller, Horror

Lee Kyoo-man

Kim Myeong-min
Yoo Joon-sang
Jeong Yoo-seok
Kim Tae-woo
Kim Yoo-mi
Kim Roi-ha
Kwak Min-seok

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aka Wide Awake

Story: Little Sang-u has to undergo surgery, but something goes wrong with the narcosis. Although the boy is not able to move or make himself heard in any way, he is completely aware of anything going on around him, including every amount of pain from the surgery. From that day on, Sang-u's life isn't the same anymore, but the doctors hope to shut away these cruel memories of his with the help of hypnosis for good.
The doctor Ryu Jae-u (Kim Myeong-min) has quite a fulfilled life and a wonderful wife, Hui-jin (Kim Yoo-mi). However, one day his old friend Uk-hwan (Yoo Joon-sang) drops by, and Ryu has to wonder what this sudden visit is all about. Uk-hwan seems to have a special reason why he has returned to Korea, and soon he reveals that he has come to hunt down the murderer of his father. It seems as if someone is systematically killing anyone, who has a connection to Sang-u's operation 25 years ago. This means that Jae-su's life is in danger, too, as his father was participating in the surgery, also. Fortunately, Jae-su gets the help of his colleague Jang Seok-ho (Jeong Yoo-seok) and the psychiatrist Chi-hun (Kim Tae-woo). But soon, he isn't sure anymore whom of his friends he can trust, as every one around him can be Sang-u...

Review: "Return" may have some plotholes and narration-wise it is also a catastrophe at times, but what the film really succeeds in is to shock its audience. Psychological thrillers such as this often are titled with the genre term horror, and it's absolutely apparent why this is the case with "Return". Director and script writer Lee Kyoo-man really knows how to toy with the fears of his audience when it comes to surgery. He completely builds his movie on a traumatic experience that no individual on earth should ever have in his life: To be fully conscious when undergoing surgery. To feel the scalpel cut through your flesh, and how several hands rummage through your organs, to feel different instruments torture you, while having no chance to let the ones around you know that you are still awake. A true nightmare. In my book, this is the worst experience you can ever imagine.

If you managed to survive the opening scene of the movie without having to throw up, the movie, concerning the shock factor, calms down a bit again. In fact, the pacing almost becomes a bit too sedate. The only thing that keeps up a certain amount of thrill is that we are introduced to many shady characters. This is also where one of the film's big flaws starts to shine through. Even though the story concentrates on Ryu Jae-u most of the time, the director always loses focus, and gets lost in too many flashbacks and drawings of characters, which all in all just don't seem to serve any real purpose at first. In fact, this becomes quite frustrating at the beginning, as the viewer has no idea what to make out of the several puzzle pieces thrown in front of him. Narration-wise the movie is without a real apparent structure, even though it might not be too difficult for the viewer to follow the events. Yet, it's not possible to join the story threads to a satisfying whole until the very end. After the resolving, and the final overall picture we are presented with, we also have to realize, that some of the story threads simply got lost along the way. Or the scriptwriter lost track of them, I should say.

What "Return" really does pretty well is to create doubt about what we see. Of course, the audience knows right from the start, that one of the characters just has to be Sang-u, who takes revenge on the men who tortured him, but we can never be sure who he really is. The director plays with the viewer's expectations, leading us up the garden path, and every time we believe to finally know the culprit, there is a new twist catching us off-guard. Furthermore, the villian depicted is actually quite an interesting one. Still, why he has to take revenge on one of the characters in an especially cruel way remains a mystery. Of all people, he choses an innocent one, making him suffer the same pain he had to endure when being a child. Naturally, this also means that we see yet another shocking and unbearable operation in which the patient has full awareness of everything. But apart from that we can't just simply hate the villian in a conventional way. We even don't wish for him to exerience the same pain as his victim, as he already had to suffer that. Which in fact just made him the monster he is. Actually, we wish for his death as some sort of salvation, and the movie also subtly aims at provoking this kind of emotion in the viewer.

The way the director sets us on the wrong track over and over again is quite clever. Especially towards the end there is one twist after another and the tension just keeps rising, so that we expect the movie to get to its final conclusion on several occasions. However, "Return" always has a surprise up its sleeve. Unfortunately, the film also inevitably gets entangled in its own web of mixed story threads. Some of the flashbacks and the constant switching between the different characters seem a bit arbitrary, which sadly also leads to the fact that the movie feels longer than it actually is. If the story would have been more centered and less confusing in form, the plot's quality would have become more apparent. But the way it is, there just seems to be something missing for the viewer to be completely won over by the thriller.
Unfortunately, there are also certain scenes that come without any further explanation, seem rather odd or are simply illogical. Why does one of the victims die of the shock of pain, while Sang-u himself survived the operation even though he was only a child? What is Jae-u's strange dream all about, which becomes reality later on? These are questions that beg for an answer, but never get any.

The actors generally provide solid to good performances, only Kim Myeong-min seems a bit too cold as the main lead. His character doesn't get the time he deserves on screen, respectively every time we start to relate to him, the movie shifts its focus to one of the other characters, even though they never get in the film's spotlight.
Still, fortunately not just the events unfolding on screen feel somewhat cold, but the cinematography is so, too. Sterile rooms and a blue camera filter add to this impression. Thus, the movie's atmosphere is very well done. Especially the thrill factor gets quite some momentum towards the end. In "Return" we don't know who the real culprit is until the very end, and the search for the killer also proves to be really thrilling. However, what's making "Return" really outstanding is the fact that it can shock its audience. Fans of worldly horror or gripping psychological thrillers, who don't have a deep sitting fear of scalpels, absolutely will get their money's worth.

(Author: Manfred Selzer)
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