“Fox on clocks on bricks and blocks
Bricks and blocks on Knox on box”
Experiencing directors Jo Won-hee-I and Kim Sang-hwa’s Desire To Kill
by Pablo D’Stair
These days, it is a rarity for me to encounter a film without having heard or seen something about it—either who is starring, directing, some synopsis, still image, blurb, peripheral mention—which to whatever degree colors the experience of my first viewing. I purposefully say ‘colors’, because it is not usually a bad thing at all and certainly in no way serves to ‘inform’ or ‘control’ the direction of my response, one way or the other.
In the case of Desire To Kill (aka Enemy at the Dead End) I thought I had the opportunity to have a pristine encounter with cinema—a screener disc, imageless, no idea the genre, the nation of origin, not a thing, I even started the disc without looking at the menu screen.
But before the film proper, the director appeared to give a kind of freeform introduction (more to say how happy he was at the distribution of the film than anything else) and in this introduction he explains he meant for the film to be funny and hoped the audience would laugh aloud at times.
This just a little bit in mind and something I would rather not have heard, the film began.
Quickly it became apparent that if Desire To Kill was meant to be funny, it was meant to be this darkly, darkly so.
A bedraggled, hopeless looking man, semi-comatose in a vague hospital explains in voiceover (or, to me, in subtitles, the film’s language Korean) that it has slowly occurred to him what he wants and what he wants is to kill a man—images of our character (Min-ho) being wheeled in a chair interlace with images of blood on the wall interlace with images of his electroshock treatment, his bloodshot eyes, his desperation at something unnamed—and that slowly he has come to remember what man he wants to kill and to realize that, in fact, he is that man.
He attempts to throw himself from a cliff but is rescued.
So, fine. Nice stuff, well photographed, already marvelously performed (I imagine most directors would kill to work with actors with the exquisitely expressive faces of the entire cast of this film) but decidedly nothing I hadn’t seen before.
Sighing at the idea of my pristine experience of cinema being ruined just because of my own film watching history, I relaxed into a kind of smarty-pants huff as the thing continued.
Then—finger snap—nothing I have ever seen before. Then—slap—all at once I am being simultaneously choked out and stroked off by cinema at its most simple, profound, abstract and mesmeric.
Min-ho is now painted as having suffered a stroke, as having been confined perhaps for weeks perhaps for decades in this hospital room. His attempted suicide is patiently admonished by his care nurse who seems sympathetic to him yet baffled that he would give up on life when at any moment he might recover.
Min-ho attempts to kill himself, again—again, again, again—each time with increasing ingenuity, with increasing need. And it should be pointed out that this ingenuity, this dogged determination is no mean feat for a fellow whose mobility is limited to, weakly, his left arm and the occasional exhausting head jiggle.
After each attempt he is saved, resuscitated, thwarted, left interminably alive.
I am given no reason for this as I sit watching, no point to his actions. I feel an absurd topsy-turvy of hope pumped into me—hope that he will succeed, that he will achieve this desire I am made to believe is earnest, moved to intrinsically and intimately understand.
I need him to die. And I feel his disgust and frustration when the patient in the bed beside him quietly, suddenly, effortlessly expires.
And then this bed is filled by the survivor of a hit and run accident, a man almost a vegetable, alive only due to the administerings of a miraculously skilled (and unseen throughout the film, as much as her name is made an almost omnipresent force) neurosurgeon.
On the arm of this new patient (Sang-up) Min-ho’s blood-red, side turned eyes catch a glimpse of a tattoo and this tattoo leads him to a realization—this is the man he wants to kill, this is the man he has wanted to kill for whatever impossibly unnamed amount of time.
I sit watching, wanting to align the film to Becket, to Sartre, to Topor—but no it is nothing like that. I want to say it is A Pure Formality only darker, that it is Identity only more vicious, more precise, want to call it Rear Window crossbred with Birth.
But it is altogether something else.
So Min-ho finds a way to make that head get tapped—finds countless ways, desperate, sudden, providential, hard fought, finds ways ingenious, impossible to knock Sang-up’s head again and again, night after night (and when these methods fail, he finds methods absolutely amoral to kill the man, such as having a visiting child pour packet after packet of jelly into his sleeping mouth) insane and transfixing methods—methods I truly, truly want to succeed.
But each morning after passing out from his efforts with a fulfilled grin on his face, Min-ho wakes to a pleasant greeting from the man who should be dead, the man who recovers more and more for each time he is bludgeoned.
Each morning Sang-Up’s personality emerges, each day his memory returns, bit by bit—until he realizes that Min-ho is the man he has been looking for his whole life, the man who murdered the woman he loves, the man he wants to kill.
I sit in my chair struck dumb, riveted past reason—I sit watching a film about two men, neither of whom can move, laying, plotting each other’s murder, each accusing the other of the same crime. I sit watching the most violently intense, imperative, spellbinding bit of cinematic suspense, both psychological and physical, I have seen in a decade.
Sang-up killed the woman.
Min-ho killed the woman.
It is a song of nameless need and torment—a communicable insanity, as one doctor surmises, and an insanity I could feel in my helpless insides as I wondered why why why with each passing frame I so very much wanted Min-ho, despite everything (despite each passing trick of lost cohesion) to ‘win’.
In my chair, my hand over my mouth, I whisper the words ‘This is motherfucking genius’.
Then—a blink—I have seen it all before.
And I admit to the hard fist down my gut of disappointment when, after one of the most unnerving, cathartic and flat out beautifully brutal struggles I can recall witnessing in a film (the two patients, left briefly unattended, like animals crawl on the floor finding ways to claw, bludgeon, bite, choke each other, suddenly stand only to fall, writhe in an endless, relentless, horrific howl of almost too simplistic cinematic anguish) I am being given reasons.
Reasons. Explanations. Revelations.
I am having things given to me and these things are taking things away.
The film is snatched away from the realm of my interior and tethered hard to some fictive other world I could not give a damn about.
I feel, sitting in my chair, almost assaulted.
Now, this is something I have seen many times, in itself, this need for a film to fulfill some pointless and rhetorical deal with the general audience. It is something maybe I should have expected, yes, and it is, certainly, something I wish to God had not happened here.
To me, the last ten minutes of Desire To Kill is the film apologizing to me when the apology itself is the insult, it is the film telling me ‘It’s alright, I wasn’t wasting your time with tricks. No, no,’ the film is saying, ‘this isn’t about you, don’t take it so personal.’
But I want to take it personal. I want my hand clamped back over my mouth and my whispered, unholy awe.
I want the horrible miracle that was.
Pablo D’Stair is a novelist, essayist, and interviewer. Co-founder of the art house press KUBOA, he is also a regular contributor to the Montage: Cultural Paradigm (Sri Lanka). His book Four Self-Interviews About Cinema: the short films of director Norman Reedus will be re-releasing October, 2012 through Serenity House Publishing, International.