"Yeonghwa: Korean Film Today" Reviews: HELPLESS, JESUS HOSPITAL, BLIND


The third edition of "Yeonghwa: Korean Film Today" is now playing at the Museum of Modern Art, through September 30. This year's selection, which is heavy on independent features, is especially impressive, with young talents offering unique and provocative visions.

The series opened with the New York premiere of Hong Sang-soo's latest film In Another Country. The film drops French actress Isabelle Huppert into the usual scenarios of film directors, academics, and male-female relations. Hong has refined his art to the point of sublimity and this new film is no exception. Huppert plays three different women, all named "Anne," and much humor results from how the other Korean characters, especially the love-struck men, relate to her.

Below are short reviews of three of this year's selections.

Helpless (Byun Young-joo)

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After a seven-year absence, Byun makes a welcome return to the screen with Helpless, her third fiction feature, and her best to date. This latest film is adapted from Miyuki Miyabe's 1992 novel All She Was Worth, updated here from 90's Japan to contemporary Korea, post-global financial crisis. The novel's original Japanese title, "Kasha," roughly translates as "a one-way train to hell," which is a fitting description of what the main characters experience in the course of the film. Events are set in motion when veterinarian Mun-ho (Lee Sun-kyun) and his fiancé Seon-yeong (Kim Min-hee), are at a rest stop on the way to meet Mun-ho's parents, during which Seon-yeong disappears. A shocked and increasingly frantic Mun-ho turns over every rock to search for Seon-young, bringing in his uncle, ex-cop Jong-geon (Cho Seong-ha), to help investigate. As the intricate layers of Seon-young's past are revealed, it turns out that nothing about her, not even her name, was what Mun-ho thought it was.

Byun successfully and with great stylistic panache marries the noir thriller trappings of her tale with the current zeitgeist of the financial distress that much of the world's populace currently suffers. Bankruptcy, identity theft, and loan sharking all figure into the central portrait of a desperate woman crossing over from victim to victimizer. Fine performances greatly enhance the effect; while Lee Sun-kyun sometimes goes a bit overboard with his histrionics as the wronged man, Cho Seong-ha delivers a nicely lived-in turn as the down-and-out former detective seeking redemption. But the clear MVP of the cast is Kim Min-hee, whose knock-out portrayal of the mysterious, seductive, and ultimately ruthless femme fatale is the film's compelling, and riveting, heart of darkness.

(Sept. 22, 8pm)


Jesus Hospital (Lee Sang-cheol and Shin A-ga)

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It's Christmastime in Seoul, but the season brings anything but cheer to the family in Lee and Shin's superbly acted, closely and intensely observed Jesus Hospital. The film begins by following the daily activities of Hyeon-soon (Hwang Jeong-min), a middle-aged woman who spends her life struggling on the social and economic margins, working at door-to-door milk delivery. She has a contentious relationship with some members of the public, some of whom consider her activity a nuisance, putting up signs in an attempt to keep her away. She is just as much an outcast in her own family, with whom she has a chilly and distant relationship, with the exception of her ailing mother. Hyeon-soon finds her sole solace in religion, and with her regular meetings with a guru-like woman in intense bible study including chanting and speaking in tongues, a practice seen as heretical to the rest of her conventionally Christian family.

When Hyeon-soon's mother falls into a coma and is subsequently kept alive through life support, with no hope of ever awakening, the family faces the ethical dilemma of whether or not to pull the plug. Hyeon-soon's siblings decide to end her life support, scheming to exclude Hyeon-soon from the decision-making process. They justify this with the onerous medical expenses they have had to shoulder, and Hyeon-soon's lack of financial contribution, as well as their mother's own wish not to live much longer. They enlist Hyeon-soon's daughter Su-jin (Han Song-hee) to keep Hyeon-soon away from the hospital long enough for them to go through with ending their mother's life support. Somewhat estranged from her mother, Su-jin goes along at first, but as an important secret is revealed concerning the heirloom of a mink coat ("Mink Coat" is the film's original Korean title) passed down from her grandmother gives her second thoughts.

Working from a semi-autobiographical screenplay by co-director Shin, Jesus Hospital compresses a lifetime of familial strife in one night, illustrating its religious and ethical concerns with often uncomfortably intimate and raw emotion. The success of this film mostly rests on the shoulders of its fine performances, especially by Hwang Jeong-min (Save the Green Planet!) and Han Song-hee.

(Sept. 25, 4:30)


Blind (Ahn Sang-hoon)

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Ahn's second feature, a thriller with a blind woman heroine that in its latter passages riffs on Terence Young's 1967 film Wait Until Dark, has all the conventional trappings one would expect. However, it's a reasonably diverting film with nicely moody atmospherics, as well as a strong performance by Kim Ha-neul as the woman at peril.

Kim plays Soo-ah, who at the outset is a police trainee who loses her sight during a highway accident in which her brother is also killed. Wracked with guilt and unable to re-enter the police force, she lives in depressed isolation with her guide dog as her only companion. One night, she crosses paths with, and narrowly escapes being killed by, a serial killer (Yang Young-jo) stalking women. Along with a detective (Cho Hee-bong) and a Gi-sub (Yoo Seung-ho), a young bike delivery worker who functions for Soo-ah as an emotional stand-in for her deceased brother, she is drawn into the pursuit of this killer. One major highlight is the impressive subway chase sequence in which Gi-sub, using iPhone's Facetime, assists Soo-ah to get away from the killer pursuing her. 

(Sept. 24, 4:30)

For more information on these films, and others in the series, visit MoMA's website.
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