Lo Chi Leung loves actors. It doesn’t matter that Susan Chan’s script for Koma is wildly suspenseful and Lo’s direction near flawless. For him, the film’s success depends on performers, here Sin-je Lee (a.k.a. Angelica Lee) and Karena Lam. “Actors are vital to a thriller film,” Lo says in “The Making of Koma,” a short but informative featurette on the DVD. “In a successful thriller, the actors should also find themselves thrilled. When the actors are thrilled, the audience will be thrilled, too.”
It’s hard not to be. Koma, released under Tartan’s new Asia Extreme label, is a relentlessly twisty trip through the bruised psyches of Ching (Lee) and Ling (Lam), brought together when Ching drunkenly stumbles into a hotel room following a wedding reception, here she finds a bloody woman crawling away from a bathtub filled with ice, the victim of an impromptu kidney removal, for which Ching blames Ling, the only other person at the scene. In a subsequent police line-up, Ling rushes at the one-way mirror, screaming that the only reason she’s here is that Ching is getting revenge against Ling for having slept with Ching’s boyfriend Wai (Andy Hui), an accusation Wai doesn’t deny. Suddenly, the organ-harvesting issue takes a backseat as Ching must rethink her relationship and find a way to escape Ling, who begins to terrorize her with nasty phone calls and random attacks. Ching does the only thing she can think of to smooth the situation over: she becomes her stalker’s best pal.
How? That would be telling. Though the film begins as a whodunit, it leads elsewhere. The identity of the kidney thief isn’t as important as the struggles the women face in attempting to make sense of their own frailties. For Ling, Ching is the rich girl who has it all, while she’ll always be second best, especially in the eyes of a guy like Wai. But soon the women come to realize their similarities.
Ling learns that Ching suffers from renal failure and low self-esteem (“I’m too thin, my breath smells bad, I can’t stand it,” she tells Wai), and Ling spends her days looking after her comatose mother. Both women need a friend, but an underlying tension remains, stemming from their preconceived ideas about each other. Revelations that Ling is not entirely on the level, and neither is anyone else in Ching’s life—not to mention the fact that Ching is in need of a kidney transplant herself—come fast during the film’s second act, with little breathing time between gasps.
The film twists viewers in three directions before they have time to come down from the first. Lo will reveal a plot point (the harvester’s identity, Wai’s duality), causing us to ponder its importance, but then reveal something else to reframe what’s come before. It’s frustrating as hell, but not in a bad way. Such audience manipulation makes for Lo an “interactive viewing experience,” a link between viewer and film he believes is fundamental to the thriller. It’s the actor’s job, he says, to make that link real, by “visualizing the tension.” “I think the performers did a good job,” he says, and he’s right.
In the making of documentary, Lee and Lam reveal they became good friends throughout the shoot and used this for their roles. In his commentary, Lo wonders if this was accidental. He notes a scene in which Lee’s character vomits as a reaction to her illness. Lam was not expecting so much vomit, and so her expression in the film is one of genuine sympathy for her friend. The actors charge through the film with equal parts ferocity and sensitivity, evincing their commitment—or as they call it, their “devotion”—to the project. Lo notes in his commentary that he wanted “to show fear by just using the actors’ eyes.” As he says it, the camera pulls in to Lee’s eyes as Ching confronts yet another of Ling’s taunts. And you see what he means.