“Helpless” is a Korean suspense thriller from female Korean director Byun Young Joo (“Flying Boys”), based on the best-selling Japanese novel “All She was Worth” by author Miyabe Miyuki. Following an increasingly desperate man’s quest to find his missing fiancée, the film stars actor Lee Seon Gyun (“Petty Romance”) and actress Kim Min Hee (“The Actresses”) in the lead, with a supporting cast that includes Jo Sung Ha (“The Yellow Sea”), Kim Byul (“Baby & Me”) and Cha Soo Yeon (“Yoga”). As well as proving a huge hit at the box office and emerging as one of the most popular domestic films of 2012 so far, it also went down very well with critics, winning Byun Young Joo Best Director at the 48th Baeksang Arts Awards.
Lee Seon Gyun takes centre stage as Moon Ho, whose bride to be Sun Young (Kim Min Hee) inexplicably disappears at a rest stop on a journey from Seoul to meet his parents, leaving behind only a hairclip as a clue. Unable to reach her phone and returning to find her apartment ransacked, Moon Ho tries to get the police to help, only to be met with standard disinterest. Teaming up with his of his cousin and former detective Kim Jong Geun (Jo Sung Ha), he soon uncovers a startling secret, namely that Sun Young was in fact not her real name, and that she had been living some kind of mysterious double life. As he digs deeper in a frantic search for the truth, he enters a seedy world of hidden identities and murder, making him wonder just how well he knew his fiancée after all.
“Helpless” kicks off feeling like George Sluizer’s 1988 classic suspense thriller “The Vanishing” (the original, not his 1993 Hollywood remake of the same name), with an attention grabbing opening few scenes, and continues from there to pack in a long running series of twists and revelations. Crucially, the film’s central mystery is a strong one, and by the standards of the genre is actually quite unpredictable in terms of the eventual path it takes. Byun does a good, patient job of building suspense, and the film is one of the few to feature a genuinely believable investigation, with Moon Ho and Kim putting in the effort and tracking down plausible clues, without the script relying too much on the usual coincidences and sudden flashes of unlikely inspiration. The film is for the most part gripping and intelligent, and though it does rush a bit into its conclusion, packing in a great deal during the last 20 minutes or so, it makes far better use of flashbacks and revelations than many of its peers.
At the same time, the film also carries a considerable emotional punch, thanks in no small part to Lee Seon Gyun’s excellent performance as the tortured Moon Ho. Lee manages to make the poor man’s agony and frustration only too palpable, successfully pulling the viewer into his plight, and his many anguished outbursts serve well to make him a very sympathetic and human figure. Kim Min Hee also impresses in a multi-layered and shifting role, convincingly switching between different demeanours as her character develops, though without pushing things too far either as femme fatale or victim.
“Helpless” is definitely a superior Korean mystery suspenser, and though not quite Hitchcock, its many twists and reversals should be clever enough to keep most viewers gripped and guessing. Solidly directed by Byun Young Joo and benefiting from strong turns from its two leads, its well-deserved box office success is very pleasing indeed, proving that there is an appetite amongst audiences for carefully crafted and intelligent fare as well as louder and more generic thrillers.
Young-Joo Byun (director) / Young-Joo Byun (screenplay)
CAST: Seon-gyun Lee … Moon-ho
Min-hie Kim … Seon-yeong
Seong-ha Jo … Jong-geun
Byeol Kim … Han-na
Duek-mun Choi … Ha Seong-sik
Hee-joon Lee … No Seung-joo