Korea (2012) Dir. Byun Young-Joo
On their way to visit his parents Jang Moon-Ho (Lee Sun-Kyun) leaves his fiancée Kang Sun-Young (Kim Min-Hee) in the car while he gets some supplies. When he gets back Moon-Ho finds that Sun-Young has vanished, the car engine running and her hair clip at the nearby restroom.
With the police unable to help Moon-Ho conducts his own investigation uncovering some interesting facts about his fiancée, the main one being the facts on her resume is full of lies. However the biggest shock is yet to come – a bankruptcy form filed by Kang Sun-Young is not the same woman he is engaged to.
It’s all too easy to forget among the ultra violent thrillers that make it across these shores from Korea that they are capable of producing decent suspenseful thrillers without needless OTT bloodshed. Helpless, loosely based on the novel All She Was Worth by Japanese author Miyuki Miyabe, is such an example. Starting as it means to go on, with little known about Sun-Young before she disappears five minutes into the film, we follow Moon-Ho on a painful journey of twists, turns and plenty of surprises.
When Sun-Young first disappears there is little help from the police, suspecting cold feet as their wedding is but a few weeks away but when Moon-Ho goes to Sun-Young’s apartment he finds it empty and ransacked. A phone call from a friend reveals that he had called Sun-Young about her bankruptcy claim from a few years ago.
Chasing this up Moon-Ho that not only was this true but Sun-Young had also recently collected on a life insurance policy on her mother’s death from two years earlier. It was looking into this lead that Moon-Ho learns that the Sun-Young he is looking for is not the same one who had filed for the bankruptcy or who collected the life insurance pay out.
From hereon in the story unfolds through flashbacks and juxtaposed allusion as Moon-Ho enlists the help of his cousin and former detective Kim Jong-Geun (Jo Sung Ha) who slowly uncovers more layers to this already intriguing story, albeit at the expense of Moon-Ho’s already frayed nerves. Whenever Moon-Ho or Jong-Geun follow up a lead it seems that the story about Sun-Young – both of them – changes the entire complex of their search, uncovering tales of debt, deceit, malfeasance and conflicting histories of the two women.
Byun Young-Joo doesn’t have much of a CV as a feature film director, known mostly for her feminist documentaries, but her handling of this tale is very measured and well thought out. In deference to Miyabe’s meticulous plotting Byun eschews the plot developments coming from convenient occurrences or shoehorned coincidences, allowing the investigation to progress naturally and follow believable and credible paths.
The tension is always present, simmering under the quieter scenes, while Byun builds on the suspension as the duo get ever closer but yet a step further away. Sun-Young’s motives might be revealed a bit too early into the proceedings but this doesn’t tell us all we need to know. What we do learn isn’t pleasant and paints a picture of a woman whose actions are driven by desperate necessity but there is clearly more to this and the reveals are fascinating to watch unfurl.
There are some nice little conceits thrown into the mix to disarms and misdirect the audience, rather successfully I must add. Moon-Ho works as a vet in his own clinic alongside perky and cute assistant Han-na (Song Ha-Yoon formerly known as Kim Byul), which is where he first met Sun-Young.
In a nice visual juxtaposition acts of Moon-Ho’s kindness towards his animal patients are shown alongside the latest grim revelation Jong-Geun uncovers, creating a touching and symbolic dichotomy of the calculating duplicitous woman and the caring vet who wears his heart on is sleeve.
Where this film stands out from other suspense dramas of this nature is by not giving everything away and keeping the tempo nice and steady, ensuring the audience is fully invested and not ahead of the characters at any time.
While other directors and story tellers might thrown in a mid way burst of action to remind us what sort of film we are watching and tease an early solution just to whip the rug from under our feet at the last moment, Byun avoids this cliché, making us wait until the final act before turning up the heat. In this instance such cheap tricks are not needed as the story is engaging and spellbinding enough without it, although the ending is admittedly a too little overblown for its own good.
If there is one concession made for the sake of commercial appeal it is the typically glamorous looking cast, but to their credit they can act and throw themselves wholesale into their roles. Lee Sun-Kyun strikes the right balance of heartthrob actor portraying an emotionally open role with some conviction, making Moon-Ho easy to root for.
Jo Sung Ha is just about on the right side of haggard to bring ex-cop Jong-Geun alive while Song Ha-Yoon is as cuddly as the animals she cradles. Kim Min-Hee has less screen time that the others but she is tasked with bringing out the various sides of Sun-Young in her small scenes, ranging from the sweet to the suffering to the sinister and does so with a deftness and depth that belies her rather unfortunate plastic looks.
Helpless achieves two many things: one, it shows that Korean thrillers don’t need to be ultra violent and two, women can make gripping thrillers just as effectively as male directors. If anything the female touch appears to be a boon to the success of this steady, intelligent and well crafted suspense drama, which fared very well at the Korean box office, which should put Byun Young-Joon on the list of directors whose progress is to be keenly followed.