Still waiting on that parcel, so let’s have a little look from a rather popular Korean thriller from a couple of years back. Based on Miyabe Miyuki’s novel “All She Was Worth”, I was interested to see if this would be one of those superior Korean interpretations of Japanese source material. As an aside, when watching it, a good 60% seemed awfully familiar, but I honestly do not remember watching it before. But I am getting old, so who knows?
As “Helpless” opens, Jang Mun-ho (Lee Sun-kyun) and his fiancée Kang Seon-yeong (Kim Min-hee) are on the way to tell his family about their impending nuptials when they pull over to grab a coffee from a service station. When Mun-ho returns to the car, his wife has gone missing, the only evidence left behind a hairclip left in the toilets. The Police are somewhat disinterested, and things are not helped when Mun-ho discovers she had just been turned down for a bank account due to a previously unmentioned past bankruptcy. Becoming ever more desperate, Mun-ho contacts his cousin Kim Jong-geun (Jo Sung-ha), a disgraced former Policeman, to help him track down his missing bride-to-be. It doesn’t take them long to discover that Seon-yeong was a stolen identity, and together they discover that there are secrets that go far deeper than someone running from bad debt.
My initial thoughts about Byun Young-joo’s film is that it really doesn’t waste any time. The initial setup is done with in the opening minutes, leaving the rest of the running time to deal with the solving of the mystery. It’s fast, brisk, and to be fair the secrets uncovered do feel earned. The film might not be the flashiest Korean film ever, but technically there is little to complain about.
However, the strength is also the films weakness. It is so concerned with the plot that it sadly leaves the human side of things rather deep in the background and somewhat sketchy. For elements such as Kim’s fall from grace and his own broken marriage this is manageable, we are able to join the dots, and enjoy the subplot of a man rediscovering himself. But the real problem is the the movie never really explores the relationship between our central couple. We find out how they met, but I have no idea what they were like together, which means that Mun-ho’s personal deterioration has no context. Not only that but we rarely get to properly know Seon-yeong, finding out things in flashback, and sometimes we can’t even be sure what we have seen is accurate. When the final reckoning happens, these conspire to make the emotional impact somewhat less that it should be.
Acting is… problematic. Lee Sun-kyun will divide the audience. He’s either giving a great performance of a man being driven to the edge of a breakdown, or he is ridiculously hysterical. Kim Min-hee is usually a great actress (if occasionally coming across a little cold and distant), and whilst she does what she can here, it’s hard to get inside her performance when she’s always been shown in what is often a speculation-based flashback. On the other hand, Jo Sung-ha is very solid, and Kim Byul (or whatever she calls herself now) adds a really necessary element of fun and warmth as Mun-ho’s assistant in his veterinary practice.
I have a copy of the English translation of the source novel, but have yet to read it (it’s like a real book, I’ve gotten so used to reading my literature on some form of Kindle..), but as I understand it the original deals much more with financial issues in 1990’s Asia. Things are much more simplified here (there’s a gang of loan sharks, and the Mun-ho character is now a Vet rather than a Banker). And I can’t help thinking this simplification of the story has done it a disservice. It’s an interesting, actually quite competent thriller. But it lacks true depth, and certainly is missing a lot in the emotional context. It’s Recommended, but hardly necessary fare.