"I plan to kill a man today... That man is me...'"
A stroke having paralysed the left side of his body, Min-ho (Cheon Ho-jin) lies in hospital with one wish, and one wish only, filling his every waking moment: Min-ho is desperate to die. Resolutely determined to commit suicide by whatever means necessary, be it by way of a pills overdose or by throwing himself out of his wheelchair and off a cliff, no amount of life-affirming pep talks from nurse Ha (Seo Hyo-rim) or repeated, enforced electro-therapy can divert him from his quest.
That is, until Sang-eob (Yoo Hae-jin) is admitted to the hospital - an accident having left him also temporarily paralysed as well as stripped of his memory - and placed in the adjoining bed.
Recognising Sang-eob from the past, Min-ho's thoughts immediately shift from suicide to murder, but as Sang-eob's memory begins to return his focus too turns to homicide and the question quickly becomes which of the two men will ultimately succeed in killing the other... and why...
Even without reading the above synopsis, it'll be pretty obvious to most that a film with the English title of Desire to Kill (or even the alternative title of Enemy at the Dead End) is likely to contain a fair amount of violence, but in classic Korean cinema genre-bending style, the increasingly brutal and ingeniously inventive endeavours of Min-ho and Sang-up to kill each other are not simply provided as violence for the sake of violence within a story of revenge. For here we have a film that is - for the majority of the running time - a genuinely funny black comedy, come mystery, come psychological thriller that moves fully into revenge territory to reveal the real state of play only once the final blood-soaked showdown has taken place, with the majority of the narrative deliberately holding back the "why" of the men's murderous intentions in favour of the "how".
This approach suits the film down to a tee and allows viewers to thoroughly revel in the comedy of proceedings while attempting to piece together for themselves the truth behind Min-ho and Sang-eob's hatred of each other. On both these counts, Desire to Kill deserves credit for its ingenuity and though the individual brutal altercations are clearly engineered deliberately for maximum comedic effect, they nonetheless succeed with ease without ever feeling predictable.
Considering the fact that violent tales of revenge are pretty much two-a-penny in almost any country you could care to mention, not least Korea, the decision to base the scenario of Desire to Kill around two semi-paralysed, almost bed-ridden, characters who can barely move is both original and, frankly, inspired, serving to set the dark yet humorous tone perfectly from almost the outset while Min-ho and Sang-eob's utter glee at not only the pain and suffering they inflict but also the sheer annoyance their actions cause underlines this further - almost guaranteeing to keep a smile consistently on viewers' faces until the conclusion of the film finally reveals its dark secrets.
Thematically, Desire to Kill ticks all the boxes you would hope and expect, the commentary centring on the idea of "As you sew, so shall ye reap" with added references to patriarchy and misogyny alongside the contrasting of archetypal blinkered male attitudes to women with the still changing place of women within society, and even briefly pointing to the feelings of women themselves as to where they fit in and how they deserve to be treated.
As is the case in a veritable plethora of classic Korean films, the wrapping of some fairly serious themes within a quirky, humorous narrative ensures that there is never any feeling of being preached at or lectured and while the themes in Desire to Kill are largely stated rather than dissected, their position underlying the narrative allows the film to succeed both on a surface entertainment level and as something more for those who choose, or want, to look a little closer.
The one area, however, that concerns me somewhat (as is the case with any, and all, Korean films featuring high amounts of violence) isn't regarding the film itself but how Desire to Kill will be perceived in the West by those who haven't yet seen it.
Ever since the days when Tartan released numerous Asian films (including Korean, obviously) under the now defunct Asia Extreme label - the specific films being chosen because of controversial content, and marketed as such - Korean cinema has been rather a victim of the misconception that it is inherently violent. Yes, there is, of course, violence present in a lot of Korean films but what this attitude, more often than not, fails to take into consideration is the context in which that violence appears.
While this approach is certainly understandable in that it allows the films to be easily marketed to the same demographic as was attracted to the Asia Extreme output, it sadly does little to appeal to those who may not seek out films with violent content, per se, but who would nonetheless appreciate a films with a funny, interesting storyline where the depiction of violence is a necessary element that has a wholly legitimate reason for being included.
Plus, no sooner is the word violence mentioned in connection to a Korean film than seemingly huge swathes of the British press, Western journalists and writers seem to have light bulbs flash on and off in their heads making them immediately think "Violence?... Korean film?... Oh, I know, let's compare it to Oldboy... No-one else will have thought of that or done it endlessly before." While this too is understandable, to a degree, it speaks (to me, at least) of either laziness, an utter lack of knowledge of any Korean films bar the most famous or a rather presumptuous assumption that Oldboy is the only Korean film that Korean film fans in the West have ever heard of.
Sadly, the undeniable notoriety of Park Chan-wook's film means it is ultimately almost inevitable that these comparisons will continue to be made, ad infinitum, and we, as fans of worthy Korean films of every genre, will have to continue to do what we can to underline the fact that taglines such as "One of the most shocking and disturbing films from Korea since the notorious Oldboy" (used for the UK DVD release of 'Bedevilled') almost do as much harm as good to the wider public's perception of a film.
One of the taglines used by critics to describe Desire to Kill is "Oldboy in a hospital room"... I rest my case.
Desire to Kill references some fairly serious social themes within a quirky and genuinely funny black comedy come psychological thriller, accenting and underlining each with copious amounts of bloody violence throughout. Just don't, whatever you do, be as lazy as to compare it to Oldboy.
Cheon Ho-jin, Yoo Hae-jin, Seo Hyo-rim, Lee Jeong-heon, Ra Mi-ran, Ahn Eun-jeong
The UK DVD
of Desire to Kill will be released by Terracotta Distribution on 23rd July 2012, at which time the full DVD details will be added to this review.
I'd also sincerely like to thank all those at Terracotta Distribution for supplying me with a screener of Desire to Kill for the purposes of this review.