My House (Yukihiko Tsutsumi, 2012)

my houseYukihiko Tsutsumi has made some of the most popular films at the Japanese box office yet his name might not be one that’s instantly familiar to filmgoers. Tsutsumi has become a top level creator of mainstream blockbusters, often inspired by established franchises such as TV drama or manga. Skilled in many genres from the epic sci-fi of Twentieth Century Boys to the mysterious comedy of Trick and the action of SPEC, Tsutsumi’s consumate abilities have taken on an anonymous quality as the franchise takes centre stage which makes this indie leaning black and white exploration of the lives of a group of homeless people in Nagoya all the more surprising.

The film begins with its hero, Suzumoto, pulling a cart followed by his friends with other supplies and equipment. Arriving at their appointed destination, the men and women embark on a process they’ve obviously enacted a thousand times before. Dismantling their cart, they arrange the components for a kind of prefab house made out of found materials and propped up on crates.

Though the life may seem impossible to those from the outside – as it does to the well meaning men from the council eager to get the mini commune to move on by dangling a promise of sheltered accommodation or assistance, but thanks to Suzumoto’s innovations they have access to many of the benefits of the modern world from television to laptops. The main source of income comes from recycling – collecting tin cans, bottles, cardboard etc to be sold back to scrap merchants and recycling plants. It’s not easy money to make and there isn’t much of it but Suzumoto has his routine well worked out and is able to maximise his takings by cutting deals with householders and businesses for handiwork in return for what is essentially rubbish.

Getting into a discussion with a hotelier, Suzumoto is offered a regular job and a place in company accommodation but turns it down. He likes his life. It might seem hard to others and it is annoying to be continually dismantling and rebuilding your house, but the innovation appeals to him. He likes to work and to make things work. He wouldn’t want to be cooped up and constrained by the world of contracts and salaries and taxes.

The freedom and simplicity of Suzumoto’s life is contrasted with a seemingly ordinary middle class household which is defined by its tension and sterility. School boy Shota is an ace student but his austere father pushes him hard, allowing him little freedom or responsibility. Nursing a mild addiction to Pepsi, Shota’s only friend is the pet turtle he keeps in a tank in his wardrobe. While his father returns home only to shout at everyone and then go to bed, Shota’s mother is as obsessed with cleaning as he is with Pepsi and rarely leaves the house. Talking to almost no one, Shota’s mother’s existence is one of cold rigidity, living in fear of her domineering husband and accidentally neglecting her stressed out son in the process.

Through a series of inevitable coincidences the two worlds will clash with tragic consequences on each side. Tsutsumi doesn’t seek to glamorise life on the streets or paint it as some kind of hippyish quest for better living, but he does dare to suggest that Suzumoto’s self reliance and inner calm are much more healthy than the fear and repression which make Shota’s home as much of a prison as the tank he traps his turtle in. Suzumoto and his friends are looked down on, hassled by the authorities, and accused of crimes they did not commit but they are the victims and not the instigators of violence. Tension bubbles over and misses its target as rage against authority and society at large is redirected towards its most vulnerable citizens.

Suzumoto takes all of this in his stride, as he always does, dismantling his house only to rebuild somewhere else hoping only to continue the cycle while Shota is left to ruminate on the consequences of his actions still trapped inside the empty pressure cooker of his family home. Tsutsumi’s elegantly composed black and white aesthetic adds to the contemplative edge as two worlds are thrown into stark contrast but the one central tenet is the enabling factor for both – the intense pressures and total indifference of the mainstream world towards those attempting to live within in it.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

An Investigation on the Night That Won’t Forget (Pagsisiyasat Sa Gabing Ayaw Lumimot, Lav Diaz, 2012)

an-investigation-on-the-night-that-wont-forgetIf Elegy to the Visitor from the Revolution was a poetic attempt to tackle the outpouring of grief which followed the murders of film critics Alexis Tioseco and Nika Bohinc, An Investigation On the Night That Won’t Forget (Pagsisiyasat Sa Gabing Ayaw Lumimot) is its mirror image – the somber and naturalistic testimony of one who was left behind, searching for resolution but finding only more questions and ongoing suffering as circumstances conspire to prolong the agony. As usual, Diaz uses the events to comment more widely on the often melancholy history of his country but also on the nature of narrative, time and memory in their necessity for the attempt to create order from a series of otherwise incomprehensible events.

Preceded by a title card reading Part 1: The Cradle of Memory, the central 55 minutes of the film consists of one unbroken static camera shot of a man talking to camera, recounting an incident which he is unable to forget yet cannot remember clearly. The man is Erwin Romulo, editor and best friend of Alexis Tioseco, occupying a chair next to a desk in his own office surrounded by books and papers, records and ephemera of everyday life. Romulo begins to tell the story that night and of its continuing wake alternating between English and Tagalog, gesticulating and fidgeting as his story becomes painful to tell.

At one point Romulo says that he’s glad they’re recording this because it’s already becoming so difficult to remember. Though he speaks uninterrupted for almost an hour (save for a brief moment in which he leaves the chair in search of water), Romulo occasionally goes off on tangents or pauses to explain something else, allowing the events to unfold as he remembers them. The camera becomes a cradle for his memory, a safe place of deposit where his own recollections can rest without fear of change for all eternity. Perfect and incorruptible, cinema stands witness to a time and a place to which it affords a kind of immortality in ever extending moments.

Romulo’s testimony concludes with a lament for the continuing absence of his friend, for the unlived future so cruelly severed by a violent, selfish act. This leads us into the second segment, preceded by a title card reading Part 2: Cradle of the Night. Beginning with a series of ordinary street scenes, the soundscape is soon broken by the reading of a long poem entitled Lullaby of Memory. Culminating with the line “Recollection is the final destination of justice,” the poem emphasises the essential melancholy which colours each of Diaz’s films in its sorrowful fatalism. The images are eventually accompanied by a great river of light as some kind of procession takes place, candles lighting the way as large numbers of people snake onward through the narrow streets. If the lights imply hope the poem seems to reject them as the procession represents a “failure of life” and the poet remarks that she “did not know how this life would fail me”. The lights go out, only to return, their meaning seeming lost and hollow.

Shooting again in low grade black and white, Diaz erases himself from the frame in refusing interaction or reaction to his subject even if there is clearly another human presence to whom Romulo is communicating his tale other than the cold eyes of the camera. Memory is a painful thing but necessary. The camera cannot ease the burden, but it can add to the experience, solidify a narrative which both buries and exposes its essential truths. The night is unending and unforgiving, the investigation may never be concluded. Those who take part in the procession carry a light in front of them but it seems to offer little illumination, the path is endless and leads only to suffering and loneliness.


 

Lacuna (醉后一夜, Derek Tsang & Jimmy Wan, 2012)

lacunaWaking up in a strange place with absolutely no recollection of how you got there is bad enough. Waking up next to a total stranger is another degree of awkward. Waking up not in someone else’s apartment but in a department store furniture showroom is another kind of problem entirely (let’s hope the CCTV cameras were on the blink, eh?). This improbable situation is exactly what has befallen two lonely Beijinger’s in Derek Tsang and Jimmy Wan’s elegantly constructed romantic comedy meets procedural, Lacuna (醉后一夜, Zuì Hòu Yīyè). An extreme number of unexpected events is required to bring these two perfectly matched souls together, but the love gods were smiling on this particular night and, once the booze has worn off, romance looks set to bloom .

Shen Wei (Shawn Yue) and Tong Xin (Zhang Jingchu) wake up undressed and with their arms around each other, but with no recollection of what exactly led them to this position. Awkwardly dressing and getting ready to part ways as quickly as possible, the pair are stunned to realise they’re trapped in a department store. Things get weirder when Shen Wei gets back to his hotel room to find it full of passed out revellers before arriving at work where his co-workers have a lot of questions about the previous night’s activities which seem to have been live blogged on the Weibo account of a well known actress.

Meanwhile, Tong Xin has returned home to feed her cat, but remembers she was carrying a large amount of money that her boss wanted her to give to a woman in a bar, and she can’t remember what happened to it. Shen Wei has also forgotten where he parked his car but a more serious problem occurs when he’s contacted by the police who are very keen for both Shen Wei and his “girlfriend” to come and pick up the “pet” they were so keen to find the night before. Luckily Tong Xin’s Weibo account is linked on the photos so he manages to get in touch with her in the hope that she can help him figure out what on earth happened last night.

Rom-coms thrive on coincidences, but luckily for Shen Wei and Tong Xin, the stars have aligned to allow them to find each other in midst of the busy Beijing nightlife despite the fact that neither of them seem the type to be particular frequenters of it. Both are, in different ways, a little lost. Shen Wei is a mild mannered Hong Konger slightly adrift in the mainland capital, whereas Tong Xin has just gone through a (seemingly amicable but perhaps painful) breakup and is also at a crisis point in her unsatisfying career which has her playing errand girl to a hack director with a scandal hanging over his head in the form of a affair gone sour with the aforementioned Weibo-ing actress – Qiqi (Mia Yam).

An anonymous night of passion is an out of character surprise for both of these otherwise straight laced, serious minded city dwellers. Both hugely embarrassed and a little bit stunned, reconnecting was never a likely prospect. Forced to get together to try and figure out their respective problems resulting from the previous night’s activities, the pair get the chance to relive their initial whirlwind romance, perhaps leading to something deeper and more substantial than just a mad one night stand. Gradually piecing together the details including random lamas and licking bull frogs with gangsters, it’s clear the pair have shared a very strange night together though its conclusion in a romantic “dream” apartment helped to showcase bashful Shen Wei’s romantic side and if all of this really does go somewhere they’ll have a heck of a story to tell the grandkids.

The “lacuna” in the their memories wasn’t the only thing missing in their lives, though it has helped each to perhaps find something to plug some of those empty spaces. Both Shen Wei and Tong Xin are left looking for something literal, but also seeking something less tangible which may have just found them thanks to the improbable coincidence of both “enjoying” an out of character night of heavy drinking, brought together by their mutual inability to hold their drink. Elegantly photographed with its series of disparate locations from upscale nightclubs to grungy dive bars and dusty construction sites, Lacuna’s whimsical approach somehow makes all of this craziness seem perfectly plausible adding to the sweet and heartfelt tone and restoring faith in playful, genuine romance even in a busy and increasingly disconnected capital.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Concubine (후궁: 제왕의 첩, Kim Dae-seung, 2012)

the-concubineYou can become the King of all Korea and your mum still won’t be happy. So it is for poor Prince Sungwon (Kim Dong-wook) who becomes accidental Iago in this Joseon tale of betrayal, cruelty, and love turning to hate in the toxic environment of the imperial court – Kim Dae-seung’s The Concubine (후궁: 제왕의 첩, Hugoong: Jewangui Chub). Power and impotence corrupt equally as the battlefield shifts to the bedroom and sex becomes weapon and currency in a complex political struggle.

Prince Sungwon first catches sight of official’s daughter Hwa-yeon (Cho Yeo-jeong) after a hunting party and develops a dangerous attraction to her. His possessive parent, the Queen Mother (Park Ji-young), finds this worrying and manoeuvres to take Hwa-yeon out of the picture by having her brought to court as a concubine of the king. Hwa-yeon, however, has a love of her own in the roguish hanger-on Kwon-yoo (Kim Min-jun) and is willing to risk her life by defying the imperial orders and running away with him. The pair consummate their union but are discovered at first light whereupon Hwa-yeon agrees to go to court on the condition Kwon-yoo’s life is spared.

Some years later, Hwa-yeon is the reigning queen as the mother of the sickly king’s only son but her life becomes considerably more complicated when the king dies in mysterious circumstances. Power passes back to the Queen Mother who puts her son, Sungwon, on the throne, making Hwa-yeon and the young prince direct threats to her power base. Sungwon is still in love with Hwa-yeon but his mother forbids him from pursuing her. Forbidding is something his mother does quite a lot of, and it’s not long before Sungwon becomes frustrated with his lack of real power. Matters come to a head when Kwon-yoo also resurfaces as a eunuch at the imperial court.

The imperial court is a golden prison and a world in itself. Once entered, it cannot be escaped. Everyone is vying for power but no one really has any. The king’s ill health and lack of a direct heir has left him dangerously vulnerable and the Queen Mother in a position of unusual strength. If one thing is clear, it’s that she has had to play a long game to get here, done terrible things in the name of power or self preservation, and will stop at nothing to make sure she remains on top.

The Queen Mother’s ascendency is contrasted with Hwa-yeon’s fall as she finds herself forced into the court against her will. Realising her total lack of agency as the court ladies are instructed to obey protocol in undressing her for the bath rather than allowing her to undress herself, Hwa-yeon exclaims that she has no right to her own body. Hwa-yeon’s body is, now, imperial property to be used and abused by the king for his pleasure and his alone. However, the Queen Mother may have met her match in the steely and intelligent politician’s daughter who seems just as well equipped to play the game as she is.

Much has been made of the sexual content of The Concubine which was largely sold on its titillating qualities. However, even if the adult content is frank it is far from erotic as sex becomes a tool of control and manipulation – one of the few available to the subjugated women of the court environment. Aside from the first love scene between Hwa-yeon and her true love, Kwon-yoo (which is perhaps the least direct), none of the subsequent scenes is fully consensual, each a part of a wider scheme or courtly ritual. Rather than an expression of love or intimacy, sex is an act of mutual conquest in which each side, essentially, loses.

Sungwon finds himself powerless both politically and romantically, unable to wrest power away from his controlling mother or win the heart of the already brutalised Hwa-yeon. A prisoner of his own circumstances, Sungwon’s increasing feelings of impotence manifest in violence and erratic behaviour as his obsession with Hwa-yeon borders on madness. Far from a liberation, Sungwon’s sex life is, in a sense literally, dictated as his ritualised consummation of marriage is conducted in front of an audience shouting out commands from behind screen doors who eventually criticise him for his lack of stamina. Kwon-yoo has been robbed of his ability to engage in this game and his desire for revenge is intense yet he will have to take it from the shadows by stealth if at all.

Director Kim Dae-seung manages the intrigue well in crafting the intensely claustrophobic environment of the oppressive court whilst ensuring motivations and desires remain crystal clear. There are no winners here even if there is a reigning champion claiming the throne. The cycle of violence and manipulation seems set to continue as even those who entered as innocents leave with blood on their hands, having become the very thing they fought so hard against. Often beautifully shot with opulent production values, The Concubine is an ice cold thriller in which desire competes with reason but rarely, if ever, with love.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Eungyo (AKA A Muse, 은교, Jung Ji-woo, 2012)

eungyoStories of old men trying to recapture their lost youth through projecting their fantasies onto pretty young women are not exactly rare and the protagonist of Jung Ji-woo’s Eungyo ( AKA A Muse, 은교) is just as aware as most that his dreams of youthful romance border on the ridiculous. A tale of loss, nostalgia, and jealousy both professional and personal, Eungyo is a poetic exploration of the burdens and benefits of age which are often invisible to those who can only look forwards.

At 70, Lee Jeok-yo (Park Hae-il) is a respected professor and literary giant who lives a quiet and solitary life in an out of the way villa. His only companion is his apprentice-cum-assistant, Seo Ji-woo (Kim Moo-yul), who is currently experiencing a period of success as his genre crossing novel Heart is topping the best seller list. When the pair return home one day to find pretty teenager Eungyo (Kim Go-eun) asleep in their garden chair, it sparks off a three way relationship which sees her working as part-time housekeeper for Jeok-yo.

Eungyo is a lively young girl and brings a little light and laughter into the otherwise stuffy villa but when she runs away from home one stormy night and stays over, the situation changes. Catching sight of Eungyo emerging from Jeok-yo’s bed, Seo jumps to the obvious conclusion and is filled with moral outrage in thinking his aged boss is conducting an inappropriate relationship with a schoolgirl. Or, perhaps, Seo himself is attracted to the girl and is angry that Jeok-yo has once again “beaten” him and proved himself superior on the fields of both literature and romance. Eungyo’s presence deepens the divide between master and pupil, threatening to change both of their lives forever.

Jeok-yo is under no illusions and never contemplates the idea of real relationship with Eungyo. His life had been a quiet and solitary one, though there’s little indication exactly how he felt about that. What is clear is that Jeok-yo dislikes his ageing body and the loss of his youth. In his fantasy romance, Jeok-yo is young, running and playing like a naive teenager in love but as soon as he wakes up the spell is broken, he’s old again and the idyllic world he’d conjured for himself no longer exists.

Even if he dreams another world for himself, Jeok-yo is perfectly aware of how things are in this one. Ji-woo, by contrast, attempts to solve all his problems by deluding himself into believing his future is brighter than it really is. His professional relationship with Jeok-yo turns out to have an unexpected dimension and Ji-woo’s literary success is a hollow pillow for his self esteem. Insecure about his talent, especially in comparison to his mentor, Ji-woo sets about casting himself as morally superior through his objection to Eungyo’s new role in their lives but this too is a thinly veiled way of trying to eclipse his master. All Ji-woo has to offer is his youth but even this cannot heal his loneliness and lack of self worth.

Eungyo becomes a symbol of something else for both men but she is also a young woman with a number of problems of her own. Faced with an apparently difficult home environment, Eungyo is seeking a connection from these two men but her borderline status as an adolescent girl means that the water is always coloured with both men viewing her as a potential lover rather than a child in need of shelter. Coming to admire Jeok-yo for his poetic soul and literary talent and siding with him against Ji-woo, Eungyo later makes a self destructive decision which ends her relationship with both men.

There are no happy endings here, even if the idea of a “happy ending” is not quite as ironic as in Jung’s previous film centring on marital infidelity, Happy End. Nobody gets what they wanted or what the audience wanted for them and each end up unable to come back from the whirlwind of self destruction which they’ve each helped to generate. A nuanced character piece in which age competes with youth, loss competes with gain, success competes with personal fulfilment, and true feeling is sacrificed for a relief from loneliness, Eungyo is deceptively named not for the young woman at its centre but for the collection of hopes, dreams and aspects of self which each of the men have imbued her with, eclipsing the real woman with an imagined prize and losing her in the process.


International trailer (English subtitles)

A Mere Life (벌거숭이, Park Sang-hun, 2012)

%e1%84%87%e1%85%a5%e1%86%af%e1%84%80%e1%85%a5%e1%84%89%e1%85%ae%e1%86%bc%e1%84%8b%e1%85%b5_%e1%84%91%e1%85%a9%e1%84%89%e1%85%b3%e1%84%90%e1%85%a5Anyone who follows Korean cinema will have noticed that Korean films often have a much bleaker point of view than those of other countries. Nevertheless it would be difficult to find one quite as unrelentingly dismal as A Mere Life (벌거숭이, Beolgeosungi). Encompassing all of human misery from the false support of family, marital discord, money worries, and the heartlessness of con men, A Mere Life throws just about everything it can at its everyman protagonist who finds himself trapped in a well of despair that not even death can save him from.

Park Il-rae (Kin Min-hyuk) and his wife Yurim (Jang Liu) own a small supermarket which isn’t doing so well. After approaching both of their parents for help and getting a flat no from both directions, the couple decide to throw all of their savings into buying a delivery van to increase their business potential. Il-rae excitedly travels into the city to sign the paperwork but gradually realises something is wrong when the salesman suddenly disappears. Having lost all of the family’s money, Il-rae travels home dejected and hits on a drastic solution – a family suicide. Poisoning his wife and son, Il-rae means to die too but survives even more burdened by guilt and regret than before. More failed suicide attempts follow as Il-rae attempts to come to terms with his actions, somehow surviving yet all but dead inside.

There really is no hope for Park Il-rae. At the very beginning of the film, the family visit a park in which his wife urges their son to make a wish by adding a stone to the top of a cairn, only to see the whole thing suddenly collapse in front of them like a grim harbinger of the way their lives are about to implode. Il-rae tries to repair the pile, but all to no avail. This quite awkward family trip in which Il-rae moodily strides on ahead will actually be the happiest they ever are, away from the destructive domestic environment where money troubles and male pride cast a shadow over an otherwise ordinary family life.

Both Il-rae and his wife seem to have strained relationships with their parents. Il-rae tries his own father first in the quest for help only for him to angrily tell his son to man up. When his wife visits her parents (alone with the couple’s little boy) it’s the first time she’s seen them in a decade and they are fairly nonplussed that it’s money she’s come for. After Yurim delicately states her predicament, her father tells her that he can’t help because he now has lots of hobbies which all require money. Offering perhaps the worst piece of fatherly advice ever uttered, he suggests she take up something fun herself and not worry about money so much.

The worse things get the more the family fragments. Il-rae drinks while the couple’s son seems to be addicted to video games. Faced with an obnoxious man who thoughtlessly parks his expensive car directly in the doorway of their store yet refuses to move because “he’ll only be a few minutes”, Il-rae is only saved from doing something stupid by his wife physically pushing him out of the way, but her physical dominance only worsens his sense of impotence. After making his drastic and irreversible decision, Il-rae is left alone and reeling from the worst kind of failure and regret. From this point on he’s marooned in his very own limboland, hovering on the brink of life and death.

Beginning with POV shots of a car dutifully following the only path laid out for it, A Mere Life states its bleak indie intentions right away as the gloomy lyrics of a folk tune run in the background constantly making reference to a despair which not even death could comfort. Recalling the great misery epics of the ‘70s, Park Sang-hun films with an anxious, unblinking camera save for the ominous shaky cam shots of a man facing the sea which begin and end the film. Il-rae may have made a decision as regards a future, but it remains unclear if there is any hope of salvation waiting for him. A Mere Life is never is never an easy watch thanks to its unshaking bleakness, but its strength of purpose and uneasy mix of morality play and character drama make for an unusual, interesting independent feature debut.


Reviewed at the 2016 London Korean Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Helpless (화차, Byun Young-joo, 2012)

121003-006_1211020310103Review of Byun Young-joo’s Helpless (화차, Hwacha) first published by UK Anime Network


Can you ever really know another person? Everything you think you know about the people closest to you is founded on your own desire to believe what they’ve told you is the fundamental truth about themselves, yet you’ll never receive direct proof one way or the other. Byun Young-joo’s Helpless is based on Miyuki Miyabe’s popular novel Kasha (available in an English translation by Alfred Birnbaum under the title All She Was Worth) which literally means “fiery chariot” and is the name given to a subset of yokai who feed on the corpses of those who have died after accumulating evil deeds, which may tell you something about the direction this story is headed. After his fiancée suddenly disappears, one man discovers the woman he loved was not who she claimed to be, but perhaps also discovers that she was exactly who he thought she was all along.

Mun-ho (Lee Sun-kyun) and Seon-young (Kim Min-hee) are newly engaged and on their way to deliver a wedding invite to his parents in person. They seem bubbly and excited, still cheerful in the middle of a long car journey. It’s doubly surprising therefore when Mun-ho returns to the car after stopping at a service station to find that Seon-young has disappeared. Seon-young is not answering her phone and has left her umbrella behind despite the pouring rain which only leaves Mun-ho feeling increasingly concerned. His only clue is her distinctive hair clip lying on the floor of the petrol station toilet. Reporting his fiancée’s disappearance to the police, Mun-ho is more or less fobbed off as they come to the obvious conclusion that the couple must have argued and Seon-young has simply left him, as is her right. Confused, hurt, and worried Mun-ho turns to his old friend, Jong-geun (Cho Seong-ha), a recently disgraced ex-policeman, to help him understand what exactly has happened to the woman he thought he loved.

Mun-ho, helpless as the title, has no idea what might have transpired – has she been abducted? Was she in trouble, was someone after her? Did she simply get cold feet as the policemen suggested? A trip to Seon-young’s apartment reveals the place has been pretty thoroughly turned over leaving little trace behind, the entire apartment has even been swept for fingerprints in chillingly methodical fashion. Another clue comes from a close friend who’d been looking into the couple’s finances and found some improprieties in Seon-young’s past which he’s surprised she wouldn’t have mentioned. Perhaps she was embarrassed or ashamed of her credit history, but running out onto the motorway in the pouring rain without even stopping to pick up an umbrella seems like a massive overreaction for such an ordinary transgression.

What transpires is a tale of identity theft, vicious loan sharks, parental neglect, and the increasingly lonely, disconnected society which opens doors for the predatory. Usurious loans become an ironic recurring theme as they ruin lives left, right and centre. Following the financial crash, a father takes out a loan from gangsters to support his business but promptly goes missing. His wife is so distraught that she becomes too depressed to care for their daughter who ends up in a catholic orphanage. Gangsters have their own rules, the debt passes to the girl, young as she is, who is then forced to pay in non-monetary services until she finally escapes only to discover the torment is not yet over. Meanwhile, another woman takes out a series of loans to cover credit card debt and is forced to declare bankruptcy, left only with a lingering sense of shame towards her ailing mother who then dies in a freak accident leaving her a windfall inheritance which she uses to buy a fancy headstone for the woman she was never able to look after whilst still alive.

The original identity theft is only made possible by this fracturing of traditional communities in favour of impersonal city life. Nobody really knows anybody anymore – Seon-young had claimed to have no family and no close friends so there was no one to vouch for her. Many other young women are in similar positions, orphaned and unmarried, living in urban isolation with only work colleagues to wonder where they’ve got to should they not arrive at the office one day. Loneliness and boredom leave the door wide open for opportunists seeking to exploit such weaknesses for their own various gains.

Byun hints that something is wrong right away by switching to anxious, canted and strange angles filled with oddly cramped compositions. The eerie score enhances the feeling of impending doom as Mun-ho continues to dig into Seong-young’s past, finding confusion and reversals each way he looks. Seong-young was not who she claimed to be, and her tragic past traumas can in no way excuse her later conduct, but even if Mun-ho’s faith in her was not justified, there is a kind of pureness in his unwavering love which adds to the ongoing tragedy. Mun-ho fell in love with the woman Seong-young would have been if life had not been so cruel, and perhaps that part of her loved him too, but life is cruel and now it’s too late. An intriguingly plotted, relentlessly tense thriller Helpless will make you question everything you ever thought you knew about your nearest and dearest, but it is worth remembering that there are some questions it is better not to ask.


Reviewed at the 2016 London Korean Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)