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)

Copycat Killer (模倣犯, Yoshimitsu Morita, 2002)

copycatYoshimitsu Morita had a long standing commitment to creating “populist” mainstream cinema but, perversely, he liked to spice it with a layer of arthouse inspired style. 2002’s Copycat Killer(模倣犯, Mohouhan) finds him back in the realm of literary adaptations with a crime thriller inspired by Miyuki Miyabe’s book in which the media becomes an accessory in the crazed culprit’s elaborate bid for eternal fame through fear driven notoriety.

Following a non-linear structure, the film first introduces us to an old man who runs a tofu shop where he lives with his middle aged daughter who is in the middle of a breakdown following the end of her marriage, and his grown up granddaughter who has become the woman of the house during her mother’s illness. Though not without its difficulties his life was happy enough but after granddaughter Mariko goes out one evening and never comes home, nothing will ever be the same again.

A severed arm and a handbag are discovered in a flower bed by a teenage boy whilst walking a dog, though a mysterious distorted voice later contacts the media to inform them that the arm and the handbag do not belong to the same woman. The boy, oddly enough, is the sole survivor of his family who were all murdered some years previously. He was interviewed at the time by press reporter Yumiko whose soba shop owning brother may have a connection to the crimes. The cold blooded killer knows all of this and is engineering coincidences into a grand plan in which he will harness the power of mass media to earn himself a kind of national respect as an “expert” on the crimes which he has himself been committing.

Hitting a style somewhere between The Black House and Keiho, Morita opts for a dreamlike atmosphere filled with dissolves, soft split screens and hacker inspired graphical touches. Not only is the killer interested in appearing on TV either in voice or in person but can also manipulate mass media by hacking commercials and billboards to proclaim his own messages. As well as the early computer inspired effects, photo zooms, and contemporary methods of evidence presentation, Morita wrong foots the audience by zigzagging through the chronology of crime beginning with the central murder then switching back to the killers as they are now, then their childhoods, and cutting back to each of the other protagonists – the grandfather, teenage boy, and reporter.

Possibly inspired by the Leopold and Loeb case, the killers are a duo of psychotic young men who think they can achieve everlasting fame and personal satisfaction by committing the kind of murders which have never been committed before. The true motivator of the crimes even tells one of his victims that she ought to be grateful. That she was leading a “pointless” life and now she’s being given the opportunity to “serve” in something greater as a component in his master plan. Before, he explains, she’d just have gone on living until she died and been forgotten but now she’ll be a star – everyone will remember her name as a victim in the crime of the century and the world will mourn her death.

At another juncture, the killer also remarks that absolute faith in the family unit is the reason a relative of a suspect or victim of crime is routinely targeted by the press and a source of recrimination even though they themselves had nothing to do with it. Family issues are also a factor as rejection and abandonment by parental figures is offered as a reason for why a person may eventually become deranged. Thus, the killer’s intention to harness mass media for worldwide fame through committing heinous, terrible crimes is painted as a quest for the attention and recognition he never received from his parents. The family is both nothing and everything, but as we reach the conclusion it’s family that engenders hope as we’re presented with a potential new family committing to proving that nurture can trump nature with happy childhoods building mentally balanced adults.

The grief stricken grandfather tells the killer that his selfish actions are cowardly and pointless. That if he really wanted to cause a sensation in this cruel world, he should have become a hero and taught people how to love instead of hate – that would be the true radical action. Morita’s essential world view is once again resolutely bleak but offered with a wry and cynical sense of humour. The final messages are of acceptance and moving on no matter how hard it may be, and of trying to create something good out of even the very worst occurrences. The film’s extremely strange, oddly explosive expressionist finale takes things a step too far and the youthful, contemporary electronic score with its link to the stereotypical hacking iconography occasionally calls attention to itself but Copycat Killer still proves an entertaining, multilayered crime thriller filmed with Morita’s characteristically experimental approach and necessary dose of oddness.


Unsubtitled trailer: