Fear and loaning lead to emotional mayhem and murder in the taut South Korean psychological thriller “Helpless.” Adapted by helmer Byun Young-joo (“Ardor”) from a Japanese novel known in English as “All She Was Worth,” this tale of a man whose fiancee goes missing taps directly into present-day economic anxiety as well as the terror of emotional commitment, accessible themes that make this natural remake material. Released locally March 8, “Helpless” collected a helpful $4.7 million in its opening weekend.
Veterinarian Mun-ho (Lee Sun-kyun) is driving his fiancee, Seon-yeong (Kim Min-hee), to meet his parents in the countryside for the first time. Stopping to get some snacks en route, Mun-ho returns to the car to find the doors unlocked, the engine running and Seon-yeong missing. He reports her disappearance to the local cops, but they trivialize his fears for her safety. On returning to Seoul, Mun-ho finds their apartment stripped of any trace of Seon-yeong.
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A banker friend (Kim Min-jae) reveals evidence that Seon-yeong has been on the lam from loan sharks for years, and that she has a long history of serial bankruptcies. Though distraught, Mun-ho just wants to track down his g.f. to affirm his love, but as he digs into her past, he finds everything he thought he knew about her was a complete fabrication. His amateur sleuthing hits a dead end when he discovers Seon-yeong’s high-school yearbook has her name alongside a photograph of a completely different woman.
At his wits’ end but unable to let go, Mun-ho looks up his down-and-out uncle Jong-geon (Cho Sung-ha), an ex-cop who was thrown off the force for accepting bribes. Desperate to restore his career, Jong-geon begins to investigate on his nephew’s behalf.
The complicated scenario in the early reels is child’s play compared with the intricate and knotty intrigues that follow, but even when it confuses, the film never ceases to compel. As the layers of deceit are peeled back, Byun seems in complete command of her material. A key demonstration of her narrative dexterity is the way she flaunts an audacious “Chinatown”-like clue to the missing woman’s whereabouts without pre-empting the climax.
While Mun-ho bears traces of the intense character Lee played in the acclaimed “Paju,” the actor skillfully manages periodic explosions of hysteria when his protag can no longer contain his frustration. In clever counterpoint, Cho (“Bleak Night,” “The Yellow Sea”) is superb as the angry, disheveled cop with marriage problems of his own.
A mixture of styles is successfully deployed to create a feeling of unease; some shots are framed with sharp angles of an almost architectural exactitude, while elsewhere Byun comfortably draws on her docu background, using a swinging Steadicam to amp things up. Accordingly, lenser Kim Dong-young uses grayish hues to accentuate the bleak atmosphere as well as the psychological trauma of Mun-ho’s experience; by contrast, select flashbacks showing the first blush of romance are bathed in vivid, hyper-real colors.
Kim Hong-jip’s dread-inducing score is right on the money. All other tech credits are topnotch.