Director: Byun Young-Joo
Writer: Byun Young-Joo, Miyuki Miyabe
Cast: Lee Seon-Gyun, Kim Min-Hee, Jo Seong-Ha, Kim Byul, Choi Deok-Mun, Lee Hee-Jun, Kim Min-Jae, Kim Tae-In, Choi Il-Hwa, Bae Min-Hee, Park Sang-Woo
Running Time: 117 min.
“Helpless” is the latest in a string of recent Korean films based on Japanese novels (see also: “Howling,” “White Night”). The source material here is a book by Miyabe Miyuki, who is known in Japan as the Queen of Crime. Filmmaker Byun Young-joo has taken her twisty, pulp-y story and applied the kind of handsome production values and intense melodrama viewers have come to expect from contemporary Korean cinema. Although the film has been marketed as a thriller, “Helpless” is more of a drama. This rain-soaked, melancholy tale ultimately drives home the terrifying message that we can never really know those who are closest to us.
“Helpless” rarely devolves into typical thriller territory, which is both a strength and weakness. While the story is unpredictable, it’s advanced largely via interviews conducted by the protagonist and his cousin, who are on the search for Lee Seon-gyun’s missing fiance. The cinematography is superb but there’s no getting around that “Helpless” is two hours of a lot of talking heads. There are few scenes where the characters are actually in physical peril and no real setpieces to speak of. A last minute bout of horror almost feels like a tribute to Japanese provocateurs Sion Sono or Takashi Miike, but it comes late in the game and the violence is more disturbing for what is implied than shown. “Helpless” is something of a cold movie; the story could have benefitted from a bit more of a pulse.
Fortunately, the actors are damn good and the plight of their characters is sympathetic. Lee Seon-gyun is known mostly for starring in romantic films. Here, he’s a tragic figure who happens to be very much in love with a woman who may or may not be who she says she is. Throughout the movie’s runtime, there are a few moments where the pressure becomes too much for Lee Seon-gyun’s character and he lets out some primal, anguished screams. His acting is a bit over the top at times but feels appropriate for a mild-mannered veterinarian who suddenly finds his life turned upside down.
The screenplay could have gone to greater lengths to illuminate Lee Seon-gyun’s background, seeing as how he’s the protagonist of the story, but most of the movie is focused specifically on unraveling the mystery of Kim Min-hee. Even relegated to flashbacks, the actress does a wonderful job bringing this complicated woman to life. Meanwhile, Jo Sung-ha plays a rumpled, disgraced ex-cop and manages to put a fresh spin on what could have easily been a stock character.
“Helpless” should satisfy anyone who is looking for a twisty, thorn-ridden mystery. But what makes this film most affecting is that, by the time the credits roll, it’s readily apparent that director Byun Young-joo is less concerned with dense plotting and more interested in hitting the audience with an emotional wallop.
HKFanatic’s Rating: 7/10