Heartbeat (Sim-jang-i Ddwooin-da)

Korea (2010) Dir. Yoon Jae-Geun

Well off widow Chae Yeon-Hee (Kim Yunjin) is so desperate to find a heart donor for ill daughter Ye-Eun (Park Ha-Young) that she is prepared to risk the black market with little satisfaction, due to Ye-Eun’s rare blood type. Lee Hee-Do (Park Hae-Il) is an idle car mechanic whose mother Ahn Sook-Hee (Kim Min-Kyung) collapses due to liver failure. The doctors say she is brain dead but Hee-Do refuses to believe this and demands she is operated on. However upon learning that Sook-Hee shares the same blood group with Ye-Eun, Yeon-Hee arranges for Sook-Hee’s heart to be transplanted to Ye-Eun, paying off Sook-Hee’s husband. After learning about this, Hee-Do decides against the operation, forcing both parties to go to extreme lengths for the sake of their loved ones.

Korean drama movies have been a bit hit and miss over the past few years as the tendency to try and appeal to mainstream western audiences has seen their usually excellent products somewhat diluted which collapse underneath weight of too many disparate genres thrown into one film. With Heartbeat see something of a return to form as this stays on course as an emotional drama throughout with little deviation. Admittedly it takes a little while to get going with the main conflict not arriving until some forty plus minutes into the film, but from then on it’s a taut battle of wills and dubious moral decisions with two lives at stake.

For Yeon-Hee it’s been a long struggle to find a suitable donor for her daughter, the stress even greater since the death of her husband. As the director of an English Language Institute Yeon-Hee is not short of cash, something which her black market dealer Jo (Kim Sang-Ho) is apparently keen to exploit, finding desperate immigrants for his organ supplies which Yeon-Hee rejects. Hee-Do has a less caring relationship with his mother, barely speaking yet happy to take the money she sends for his business which he wastes on his girlfriend Na So-Young (Jung Da-Hye). At an uncomfortable dinner where Sook-Hee announces her leaving for the US, she gets a less than friendly send off from her son, but his attitude suddenly changes when she is admitted to hospital after collapsing.

Compounding Hee-Do’s stubbornness towards the doctor’s advice about transplanting his mother’s heart to Ye-Eun is the duplicity of Sook-Hee’s husband. With no love lost between them, Hee-Do not only is fuming at the papers being signed against his knowledge but how much of a ride Sook-Hee was being taken by her slimy hubby. Even more shocking is the discovery of where the money she has been sending her son came from. Meanwhile Yeon-Hee is trying to appeal to Hee-Do’s better nature to save her daughter’s life which doesn’t go so well. With an impasse quickly reached from which neither is about to back down from, the acts of desperation become almost farcical and a dangerous game of cat and mouse is on, while the true victims continue to suffer.

The central conceit is the value of one life compared to another. While both Yeon-Hee and Hee-Do are acting in the best interest of their loved ones, they fail to see this same devotion in the other. Is this blatant selfishness or simple emotional myopia? An argument can be made for both until the tactics become desperate and underhanded, threatening to do more harm than good to the two patients. Yeon-Hee has the natural early advantage with her greater financial standing leaving Hee-Do to rely on his guile and street smart if underhanded methods to get what he wants. This fairly cut and dried dichotomy created by the wealth divide takes and interesting twist when desperation gets the better of Yeon-Hee and she becomes the more ruthless of the two while Hee-Do starts to gain audience sympathy as the odds are against him and he is forced to fight fire with fire.

This role reversal gives the story some extra mileage and helps maintain interest heading into the final act, which as one might expect is emotionally charged and tear jerking. While it is nice to see the film stay in one genre it still suffers from that other cavil Korean films suffer from – the running time. At just under two hours it is longer that it needs to be, although in this case it the opening that is drawn out rather than the ending. Had the central plot kicked in a good twenty minutes earlier, the tighter script would have made for a tenser rollercoaster ride. It may not be an edge of your seat thriller, but there is plenty of moments of anxiety to keep the viewer invested in this unusual battle of wits.

While most of the cast are stalwarts of Korean cinema he would be familiar faces to ardent fans, leading lady Kim Yunjin is more known to western audiences from the US TV show Lost. Thankfully her stint in Hollywood hasn’t harmed her acting and Kim delivers a solid and well rounded performance as Yeon-Hee, retaining a sense of an everyday person who is financially comfortable rather than a woman awash with wealth. That’s aid, the only slight niggle about her character is how she always seems to be well groomed and classily attired despite having to run around town to protect her daughter. In a change of pace from his heroic role in the action packed War Of The Arrows, Park Hae-Il initially fails to convince as a lout with his babyface looks, but soon fits comfortably into the part.

Pacing and length issues aside, Heartbeat is another strong entry into the Korean drama canon that remains neutral in its moral dissertation on the value of human life and familial devotion.