[From September 20th to the 30th, the Korea Society in New York will be hosting a series of screenings called “Yeonghwa: Korean Film Today” at the Museum of Modern Art. Over the week, we will be bringing you reviews of a select number of them. For more information, head here.]
As I get older and spend more time in close proximity with people, something I always wonder is how well I actually know them. Chances are, the people I spend the most time with (my college friends) are basically who they say they are. I feel like see them too often for them to really put up a constant act of playing a character. This is doubly true for the people I live with. I’m around them more than half of every single day, and that makes me think that I know pretty well what makes them tick.
Helpless makes me wonder if that’s just me being naive.
Helpless (Hwacha | 화차)
Director: Byun Young-Joo
Country: South Korea
Imagine that you are on your way to your parent’s house with your fiance. It’s time to tell them you’re getting married. On your way you stop for this, that, or the other reason. Maybe you have to get some snacks or something. It doesn’t really matter. Your fiance stays in the car while you run in to get it done. You come back, and your fiance is gone. There’s no sign of a struggle; she has simply disappeared. This is the situation that Jang Moon-Ho (Lee Sun-Kyun) finds himself in in Helpless. His fiance, Kang Sun-Young’s (Kim Min-Hee), vanishes without a trace, and it’s up to him and his cousin Jong-Geun (Jo Sung-Ha), a former police officer, to find her.
Likely due to a combination of me just having seen Blind and the name, I expected Helpless to be an intense, perhaps even action-packed thriller. It’s not that. In fact, Moon-Ho and Jong-Geun are literally never in serious danger. Maybe it’s sexist of me to have assumed that it would be Sun-Young that was “helpless,” but I thought that was a pretty sure bet. Korean films have a way of subverting my expectations, though, and it seems that this is one of those times. I imagine that the title refers to Moon-Ho, since he is the one who is so distressed trying to solve this mystery, although it could refer to nobody at all and just be a somewhat-misleading title.
Note: I’m going to have to spoil an early but major plot point to say anything of substance about Helpless, so fair warning to you. The woman who Moon-Ho has been living with and is planning on marrying is not named Kang Sun-Young. Kang Sun-Young is an entirely different person whose identity was stolen by whoever his fiance actually was. This is the crux of the mystery: find out who his fiance truly was, and perhaps find out how the real Sun-Young never realized someone else was using her name and information. It’s an interesting premise, and it leads Moon-Ho and Jong-Geun all over. Whoever Sun-Young is, she is good at hiding her identity. But she’s not that good. She accidentally left clues here and there and everywhere, and those are the things that the mystery solvers latch onto. It’s a pretty cool ride, and it’s one that I definitely enjoyed taking.
About the two-thirds mark, though, the mystery is essentially solved. At that point, Helpless does become a thriller, but it’s still not Moon-Ho or Jong-Geun that are in trouble. This leads to a strange dynamic where they are now trying to save people at no risk to themselves. It becomes a race against time more than anything else. That’s kind of strange to me. I’m used to watching the protagonists in films like this do their work despite the fact that it could put their lives on the line. Hell, maybe they do it because it does put their lives on the line. At every corner, there could be someone with a gun or a knife, and they are trying to solve the mystery still. Helpless is not that. That’s not a terrible thing, per se, but it definitely does make the whole thing less interesting, especially after the mystery is solved. When other people are in danger, only the most basic empathetic emotions are affected. When the protagonists are in danger, though, there’s far more connection and far more to worry about. When the film characters are more worried about the people in danger than the audience is, it’s an awkward disconnect.
Helpless is definitely hurt by that. Fortunately, it’s not a killing blow. What is in some ways more distressing is that the big climactic moment is ruined by some terrible green screen work. A should-have-been powerful moment was anything but that, and the emotion that should have been there was entirely lost. But neither of these things or the other niggling issues that take place over the film are enough to really keep it down. Despite the weird sort of genre twist, I was interesting in Moon-Ho and Jong-Geun’s journey until the end. They meet some interesting people and unearth some very interesting clues. The ways they go about collecting evidence (especially former-cop Jong-Geun) is all very enjoyable to watch. Finding out Sun-Young’s real identity is definitely the better part of the film, but the rest of it is not bad by any means.
The basic question of Helpless, “What would you do if you found out the person you have been spending the last few years of your life with was living a lie?” is a fascinating, if slightly distressing, one. I think basically everyone would do what Moon-Ho did and do whatever they could to find out who that person was. It doesn’t matter if the relationship is beyond repair, which at that point it almost certainly it. What matters is closure. Moon-Ho needed closure. He needed to undersand why Sun-Young did what she did to herself and what she did to him. I would certainly feel the same way.
Hopefully, though, I won’t ever have to.