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By Heidi Martinuzzi | March 9, 2005

Koma is a horror/thriller from Hong Kong that is fascinating and cool looking without being overwhelmingly smart or interesting. Koma follows a twisty-turny story revolving around an odd relationship between two women, and kidney thievery, that is confusing. Yes, kidney thievery. Using the Urban legend of a drunken reveler waking in a bathtub filled with ice and a missing kidney as a premise to weave a narrative around two equally disturbed women, Susan Chan writes her characters as blueprint weak females who end up becoming stronger through their friendship. Well, friendship may be a strong word, since their relationship is categorized by jealousy, rage, mistrust, lies, and frustration.

Koma is not the Cantonese word for “Coma”, which is our first thought as English-speaking viewers. “Koma” in Chinese quite closely means, “help”. Kar Yan Lam (AKA Karena Lam) plays Suen Ling, a woman from the “wrong side of the tracks” with a sick mother, a hard life, and little hope for the future. Angelica lee is Chi Cheng, a beautiful, rich woman who seems to have everything Suen ling wants. Including a man named Wai. Wai, as a doctor, romances Suen Ling behind the back of Chi Cheng, his fiancé. But before you judge Wai too harshly, know that Chi Cheng has some serious health problems that make it virtually impossible for her to have sex. When the beautiful Suen Ling begins working as a nurse in the hospital where Wai is a surgeon, their fiery romance heats up, unbeknownst to Chi Cheng. Chi Cheng suffers from Kidney failure. Her condition causes her to throw up at random times, and has marred her psyche with some serious physical insecurity. Wai, though Chi Cheng is sick, will never leave her, and Suen ling becomes painfully aware of just how devoted he is to Chi Cheng, despite the lust that they share.

Now, in walks the premise that there is a serial kidney-stealer running around the Hong Kong cutting up women’s sides in order to sell their organs on the black market. Chi Cheng unfortunately has the grisly experience of discovering one of the victims as she lies bleeding, and even more coincidentally, she witnesses Suen Ling leaving the premises suspiciously. When Chi Cheng picks Suen Ling out of a lineup at the police station, Suen Ling rages on about how she is being framed because she has slept with Wai. Except that Chi Cheng didn’t know, until that moment, that Wai had been with Suen Ling. But she knows it now….

After a 20 minute game of cat-and-mouse in which Suen Ling terrorizes Chi Cheng mercilessly with crank phone calls, threats, and other forms of harassment, we learn that Suen Ling is actually a caring, sad person who only wants to be loved. It seems she has been asking for money from Wai in order to support her dying mother, and she is truly, in fact, in love with Wai. Being the kind and gentle soul she is, Chi Cheng forgives her and Wai for their travesty of modesty, and she forms a special friendship with Suen Ling. A relationship that is both disturbing, beautiful, and indicative of just how lonely both women really are, appears between the Suen Ling and Chi Cheng.

And that’s when all hell breaks loose. The plot becomes confusing, strange, and increasingly violent as the movie progresses from this point. Involving a murder mystery, a kidney thief, lies, backstabbing, more sex, more kidney trouble, and some major moral decisions for everyone involved, Koma is an odd, if not disturbing, film. With a very different look and feel (the film is aglow in deep reds and blues, and color plays a very important part in the emotions of the characters), this Asian psychological thriller is not as frightening as its fellow thriller/horror imports to the U.S. like Ringu, Ju-On, and Battle Royale. Rather, it reminds me more of a second-rate thriller like 1991’s Scissors, with Sharon Stone, or that other Sharon Stone b-thriller, 1993’s Sliver. Of course, it has to have a “twist”, which it does, but the twist seemed very easy to spot and not very difficult to believe. With some elements of the immensely upsetting Fatal Attraction, but rarely able to deliver the same impact, Koma just can’t live up to other films in the same genre.

The dynamics between the two lead actresses is the major selling point for this film. Angelica Lee and Kar Yan Lam develop a fantastic onscreen chemistry that doesn’t save the film from the convoluted plot, but that does make their interactions both intriguing and believable. The characters they play are both strong and weak, frail and dangerously on edge, and it is refreshing to see Asian women portrayed as something other than geishas or maniacal superviallains. Their problems are relatable, though maybe a bit more intense than the average woman’s everyday struggles; Suen ling craves love, acceptance, success, and friendship. Chi Cheng wants to be a sexually normal, happy woman capable of giving and receiving love. Instead they are both deprived, desperate, and unhappy, which causes them to make some very poor, and frantic, choices. It also causes them to latch on to each other, as friends, competitors, and sisters, but their unhealthy relationship is too dangerous not to end up being volatile for everyone involved.

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