“Enemy at the Dead End” (also known by the more generic title “Desire to Kill”) marks the debut Kim Sang Hwa and Jo Won Hee, both of whom share writing and directing duties, as well as making small cameo appearances in the film themselves. The film is a tightly plotted suspense thriller which revolves around two hospitalised men with mysterious pasts and distorted memories, whose recoveries are spurred by their growing desire to kill each other. Playing the two tortured protagonists are top actors Cheon Ho Jin (“A Dirty Carnival”) and Yu Hae Jin (“Moss”), with support from actress Seo Hyo Rim (“Sungkyunkwan Scandal”) as the unsuspecting nurse trying to keep them both alive.
The intriguing plot kicks off in 1984 with a man called Min Ho (Cheon Ho Jin) waking up in hospital after what appears to have been the latest in a series of suicide attempts. Although the doctors try to inspire in him a desire to live, he seems determined to try again, despite the best efforts of the kindly and attractive Nurse Ha (Seo Hyo Rim). Things change when another man is given the bed next to his, the paralysed amnesiac Sang Eob (Yu Hae Jin). The sight of the man sparks painful though confusing memories in Min Ho, and though he can’t remember why, he is gripped with a fierce need to kill the man. As Sang Eob slowly gets better, the enmity between the two men builds until the point where their small room becomes a deadly battleground.
“Enemy at the Dead End” gets off to a gripping start, and quickly establishes itself as an offbeat, highly original suspense thriller. Kim and Jo make it clear from early on that they are not afraid to take risks and to avoid some of the tired clichés of the genre, especially in their use of a pair of protagonists who it is hard to like or even sympathise with. Since the viewer, along with the characters themselves, knows very little about Min Ho and Sang Eob, there’s very little to judge them on, aside from a few jumbled visions and flashbacks, and their increasingly spiteful and homicidal behaviour towards each other. With it being hard to know which of the men to trust, and with the perspective shifting between the two, the film is a paranoid, deceptive affair, not least since none of their fragmented recollections seem to be happy.
Thanks to some skilful storytelling and well-paced revelations, the film gradually unravels its mysteries in engaging fashion, with the waters being further muddied by tensions amongst the staff, and with the two patients being put on an experimental drug by an unseen head doctor who seems determined to use them as lab rats. This does result in a Kafka-esque feel, with definite Hitchcockian overtones, with the viewer being fed only the most ambiguous of hints as to what is really going on. Wisely, Kim and Jo never overplay their hand, and though they certainly have a fair amount of fun manipulating the viewer, answers are ultimately forthcoming. Once all the cards are on the table, the film does conclude with a somewhat contrived and not quite convincing finale and series of skeletons leaping from closets, though this is still satisfying enough, and it packs an appropriately nasty and mean spirited closing punch.
Despite this, and some fittingly grim and gothic sets, the film is nowhere near as depressing as it might sound. Kim and Jo find plenty of dark humour in the basic premise of two bedridden men, just out of each other’s reach, trying to kill each other, and their murder attempts are inventive and frequently amusing. Their escalating struggle and rivalry over the perceived affections of Nurse Ha do take on an air of black comedy at times, being at once childish and cruelly surreal. This does mean that the film makes for pretty gruesome and painful viewing at times, especially during its standout last act set piece as the two men finally manage to get their hateful hands on each other.
As a result, though undeniably downbeat, “Enemy at the Dead End” is also kind of fun, and is a top notch, tense and fast moving suspense thriller. Benefiting from an original and neatly realised central premise and some clever plotting, it successfully manages to keep the viewer guessing without feeling too exasperated, and shows again what it is possible to do with some intelligent writing and well crafted direction.
Jo Won-hee-I, Kim Sang-hwa (director) / Jo Won-hee-I, Kim Sang-hwa (screenplay)
CAST: Cheon Ho-jin