Nestled deep in the maddening inconsistencies of Young-Joo Byun’s dramatic thriller are moments of raw emotional genius. Alternately melodramatic and understated, Helpless is sometimes a frustrating viewing experience, but the film contains moments so emotionally engaging – and viscerally satisfying – that they may well serve to justify the work as a whole.
Helpless hits the ground running and the opening hook is good enough to preclude any discussion of plot here. The film is a mystery, and as much as the physical coordinates of that mystery are engaging, the film’s real pull is the intriguing mystery of the character and motivations of Seon-yeong, the enigmatic fiancé of protagonist Moon-ho.
As Seon-yeong, Min-hie Kim is a statuesque mystery. Her face conforms self-consciously into expressions of happiness and despair alike, her skin sliding smoothly over bone in a way that reminds us constantly of the disparity between countenance and inner life. Her acting is visible, not in the way that a bad actor’s is, but in the way a real person’s is when they are placed under scrutiny.
As the violence and abuse that she has suffered is revealed, the audiences’ connection with her grows. We begin to notice, and then to understand, her eyes – they are eyes trapped in a smiling face, eyes that roll wildly in search of safety when her fiancé’s arms slide around her in bed, even as her fingers wrap lovingly around his.
Byun’s film is about an abused woman – but it is a story about the woman, and not the abuse. The unfortunately familiar sequences of male violence towards a largely defenseless woman, while shot and acted with aplomb, make up a very small part of what emerges as a study of the effects of abuse on identity and emotional boundaries. The darkness of the film is Seon-yeong’s, but it is manufactured – perhaps, literally, it is beaten into her, an evil generated by evil rather than converted from good.
There may be a sense that, in natural character, Seon-yeong was morally faultless, but the triumph of the film is in its refusal either to victimize Seon-yeong or to glamourize her suffering. Treated with violence, she responds in kind, to an extent which places her well outside an argument for her moral right that does any less than completely disregard personal responsibility.
There is a notable contrast, between the frat-house boisterousness of the male violence and the troubled complexities of Seon-yeong’s, which echoes the examinations of gendered violence by another Korean filmmaker, Chan-wook Park, in his Vengeance Trilogy (the trilogy is Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy, and Sympathy for Ms. Vengeance). It’s welcome and enlightening to see similar questions explored by a female director.
Plainly put, though, the film is inconsistent. The script moves in fits and starts, and lags through some of the second half before arriving at a climax which feels at once disappointingly small and undeservedly operatic. It is Moon-ho’s emotional journey as he uncovers the horrors of Seon-yeong’s past that keeps us engaged throughout the film. The filmmaking is often strong, stylistically and from a story-telling standpoint, but is entirely faultless only in rare sequences. Luckily, these are the ones that end up counting.
Midway through the film, Seon-yeong calls Moon-ho from a payphone. When he answers, she can do nothing but cry. The silence stretches, and Moon-ho’s body begins to slump as he pleads with his fiancé to speak. The physical disconnect between the two is clear, but as Moon-ho continues, it is Seon-yeong’s emotional disconnect which becomes most palpable, a barrier built of years of abuse and shame entirely alien to Moon-ho. The panicked eyes in Seon-yeong’s perpetually poised face become the visual representation of what we are slowly beginning to realize: the love and affection that Moon-ho has enveloped Seon-yeong with is not as powerful or as encompassing as the darkness and violence she experienced previously. Finally, unable to stand the silence, Moon-ho screams into the phone, the impotent rage of a good man whose love is the casualty, physically, spiritually, of the actions of bad men. If their connection is lost, it is not because of him, or her, or chance, but because of hate – he screams, and she hangs up.
Helpless is a mostly-effective dramatic thriller, and even has its fair share of comedy and lightness, which proves to be very welcome. Its strength, though, is in its ability to draw us into the pain of characters in a fashion that is redemptive rather than disheartening. The film’s journey is often unpleasant, but it gets into the head, and the chest, and proves itself worthwhile.