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(Movie Review) 'Helpless' a solid, suspense laden thriller

All Headlines 09:18 February 24, 2012

By Shim Sun-ah

SEOUL, Feb. 24 (Yonhap) -- Japanese writer Miyabe Miyuki's best-selling novel "Kasha" is a journey through the dark side of Japan's consumer-crazed society.

Set in the early 1990s when Japan's asset bubble burst, the crime thriller featured ordinary people who plunge into insurmountable personal debt and fall prey to dangerous web of underground creditors -- so dangerous that murder may be the only way out.

Much of the story can be glimpsed in this South Korean film adaptation titled "Helpless" in English (the Korean language title is "Hwacha," the Korean pronunciation of the Chinese characters in the title of the Japanese novel). The movie's setting, however, is changed to Seoul in late 2000s.

An audience with no prior information would not notice that the story was originally set in Japan, since South Korea was also hit hard by the global financial crisis that erupted in 2008. Credit delinquency, personal bankruptcy, one-person households and indifference are also significant issues in South Korean society.

The movie only superficially touches on those social problems, likely to focus on the tale of mystery and suspense. Director Byun Young-joo is known for "The Murmuring (Najeun Moksori)" (1995), a socially heavy documentary about Korean women forced to serve as sex slaves for the Japanese military during the World War II. She later directed two unique commercial features "Ardor" (2002) and "Flying Boys" (2004). The different direction does not detract from her new film, "Helpless."

The deftly made movie keeps the audience in breathless mystery and suspense all the way through the course of delving in a beautiful young woman's past.

The story begins as the girl named Kang Seon-yeong (Kim Min-hee) abruptly vanishes at an expressway rest area while traveling with her fiance, just a few days before their wedding.

Jang Mun-ho (Lee Seon-gyun), her fiance, seeks help from his cousin Kim Jong-geun (Jo Seong-ha), a former police detective, to find her, and then the two men quickly find she is not who she claims to be.

The Japanese novel revolves around the detective, but the movie transmutes the role of tracking the girl's past into her fiance, and gives the film a touch of melodrama. Unlike the detective, for whom Seon-yeong is nothing but a crime suspect, Mun-ho keeps a sympathetic view of the woman and her entangled life because he still loves her. It was a clever choice to better portray the insecurity and loneliness of the woman who had no choice but to become an inhumane killer.

Two of the film's shortcomings are excessive venting of emotions by the male lead and the supporting actor, Lee and Jo, and that it is plain and visually uninteresting.

"Helpless" opens at local theaters on March 8.

sshim@yna.co.kr
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