A surgical psychothriller that successfully leads the audience up the garden path, “Wide Awake” just misses the brass ring by not making its creepy premise as scary as it should be. Feature debut by helmer Lee Gyu-man managed only an OK 600,000-plus admissions during the traditional K-horror summer season — when the dragons of “D-War” trampled all opposition — but is a solid bet for fantasy fests and buff ancillary in the West.
Unsettling central idea is “anesthesia awareness,” a supposedly rare phenomenon in which a patient seems to be unconscious, but is actually experiencing the pain of surgery without any way of expressing it. In 1982, young boy Na Sang-woo suffers said phenom, but no one believes him when he comes to.
Twenty-five years later, the story centers on surgeon Ryu Jae-woo (Kim Myeong-min), who has recurring nightmares about shooting himself. Worse, he’s being harassed by phone calls from a certain Lee Myeong-seok (Kim Roe-ha), who blames Ryu for his wife’s death during an operation and vows to kill Ryu’s wife, Heui-jin (Kim Yu-mi), in revenge.
Next, an old school friend of Ryu’s, the suspicious-looking Gang Uk-hwan (Yu Jun-sang), turns up from the U.S., and seems upset when Ryu can’t remember their childhood oath of blood brotherhood. Ryu also has a disagreement with his anesthetist colleague, Jang Seok-ho (Jeong Yu-seok), who’s against using hypnosis rather than drugs during a tricky operation, partly because the idea has been recommended by weirdo hospital shrink Oh Chi-hun (Kim Tae-woo).
One day, Heui-jin is brought into the emergency room with a mysterious object in her stomach. Ryu has no choice but to perform the op himself.
Script’s main trick is to keep the audience guessing as to which of the protags is actually the adult Sang-woo — especially as it becomes clear through flashbacks that Sang-woo has been murdering everyone connected with his disastrous operation as a boy. Double twist near the end is clever, though its execution is dramatically a tad clumsy.
Putative lead Kim Myeong-min is OK as the troubled Ryu, though the supporting thesps grab most of the character honors. Kim Tae-woo (“Woman Is the Future of Man”) is especially good as the smoothly confidant shrink.
Tech package is clean and chilly, to the usual Korean high standards. Original title translates as “Return,” but pic is now being sold internationally as “Wide Awake.”