Helpless: Filmart Review
Byun Young-joo's mystery-thriller centers on a man's obsessive search for his missing fiancee.
Revolving around a universally current topic — personal financial strife — writer-director Byun Young-joo's Helpless is a mystery-thriller for the post-bailout years. Multiple identities, lies and a life on the lam are among the elements at play in the onion-layer drama. While the film’s loan shark plot points (there are always loan shark thugs in Asian thrillers) may ultimately be a touch alien to European and North American audiences, the desperation the central character experiences as a result of bad credit will ring true even if the lengths she goes to in order to correct her problems are fantastical.
Helpless has a built-in audience in Japan, where Miyabe Miyuki’s 1992 bestseller was the basis of two television series, and Byun should be able to trade on her past Forum appearance at Berlin (with Ardor) to generate interest from Asian and women’s fests. The film could have a reasonable shelf life in VOD, cable and DVD though theatrical release will be limited to art houses in the West, largely do to its timely subject matter.
Byun taps into themes of female agency that are all too rare in Korean cinema, and so it's easy to see what drew her to the book. Best known for her WWII comfort woman documentary trilogy, Byun brings a distinctly feminine perspective to the action. Helpless pivots on Mun-ho (an irritatingly histrionic Lee Sun-kyun) and his former cop cousin Jong-geon’s (Cho Sung-ha) search for Mun-ho’s missing fiancée. Seon-yeong vanished while the couple was stopped at a gas station en route to his parents’ home and Mun-ho becomes obsessed with finding her. But once he and Jong-geon start digging, Seon-young’s ugly secrets start to rise to the surface. A history of deceit, false identities and finally murder is exposed, confusing Mun-ho (not difficult as he doesn’t seem terribly bright) about the truth of their relationship, leading to a tragic final confrontation.
Where Miyabe’s novel (the original title, Kasha, referred to a one-way train to hell) explored a number of issues that were pressing down on Japan in the early ’90s — asset bubbles, the endurance of the family registry, a national reliance on credit and the resulting credit economy among others — Byun's film uses the book as a framework upon which to hang more current issues. Pressing debt becomes Seon-yeong's motivation for everything she does, but Byun also floats questions of how much we can truly “know" those closest to us. There's a lot in the book, and Byun takes some narrative and character liberties, but overall she's done a respectable job of making Helpless speak to audiences now.
If there's a downside to the film it’s the distancing and too frequently strident performance by Lee. The actor was nicely nuanced in Paju, a festival circuit hit in 2009, but here he loses all sense of control and, it must be said, dignity with his flailing and shrieking. It's not all his fault; Byun does a fantastic job in the script of making him so singularly obsessed viewers lose touch with Mun-ho. It's hard to care for a vet who lets someone else's pet die on the job. Kim (Actresses) walks a fine line between inscrutable and enigmatic but knowing less about her doesn't hurt the mystery. What is does hurt is the romance. A better understanding of the roots of Mun-ho's attraction to her — aside from a shared love of popsicles — would be welcome. But Cho (terrific as the grieving father in the affecting indie Bleak Night) remains compelling from start to finish with a gruff-but-principled cop schtick that stays just this side of routine. The film is technically polished, and features a delicately haunting score by Kim Hong-jip that props up Mun-ho’s murky internal mood when Lee fails to.
Producer Shin Hye-eun
Director Byun Young-joo
Cast Lee Sun-kyun, Kim Min-hee, Cho Sung-ha, Kim Byeol, Choi Il-hwa
Screenwriter Byun Young-joo, based on the novel All She Was Worth by Miyabe Miyuki
Executive producer Katharine Kim, Jay Gil
Director of Photography Kim Dong-young
Production Designer Lee In-ok
Music Kim Hong-jip
Editor Park Gok-ji
No rating, 112 minutes