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Director explores financial, social horrors

Byeon returns with ‘Helpless,’ adaptation of Miyabe’s thriller

It’s been 17 years since director Byeon Young-joo made her controversial feature debut.

The 45-year-old director impressed the film scene in 1995, showcasing her non-fiction film about elderly women who were forced to be sex slaves for the Japanese military during World War II.

Now, Byeon is back with her third commercial, yet socially-conscious, film ― following her not-so-successful “Ardor” (2000) and “Flying Boys” (2004) ― a gruesome thriller deeply linked with the ills of contemporary society. 
Director Byeon Young-joo poses for a photo prior to an interview with The Korea Herald on Tuesday. (Lee Sang-sub/The Korea Herald)
Director Byeon Young-joo poses for a photo prior to an interview with The Korea Herald on Tuesday. (Lee Sang-sub/The Korea Herald)

Based on Japanese celebrated writer Miyuki Miyabe’s 1996 novel, “Helpless” (Hwacha, “Fire Train”) pivots around a young woman who suddenly disappears just a few weeks before her wedding.

“The novel takes place in Japan in the ‘90s after their economic bubble collapsed,” Byeon said during an interview with The Korea Herald in Seoul, Tuesday.

“The most challenging part was to make its film version, which takes place in contemporary Korea. But the things that the novel talks about, such as problems with private loans, bankruptcy and credit rating still exist in our world. That’s what’s scary.”

Since its press premiere last month, the film has been receiving generally positive reviews. Its leading actress, Kim Min-hee, in particular has been praised for her performance as the angelic fiance who later turns out to be a lurid criminal. In the film, Byeon successfully humanizes the villain by following her life which had been completely taken over by family debts and brutal violence.

“I personally have no sympathy for Sun-young, (Kim Min-hee’s character),” Byeon said cynically. “Nothing can rationalize what she’s doing in the film. One thing I wanted to talk about with this movie is the idea of self-pity and how it can eventually drive one to commit evil deeds. Sun-young is certainly absorbed by it. Once you start to feel that you are in the worst situation in the world, you become ruthless toward other people. You begin to think it’s all right to harm others in order for you to survive.”

But working with leading actress Kim was a blast, Byeon said.

“I ended up adding more scenes for her to act because she was just exceptional,” she said. “She knew what she was doing, and knew she was able to pull it off. She was rarely nervous throughout the production. She’s got no fear and is always confident.”

Just a few days prior to the press premiere, Byeon met up with Miyabe, the novel’s author, in Japan.

“She and I shared similar views on a lot of things,” Byeon said. “We both agreed that it’s for our readers and viewers to decide and form opinions about the Sun-young character. I brought a DVD copy of the film with Japanese subtitles and handed it to her. I thought she deserved to see it ahead of everyone else.”

After watching the DVD, Miyabe sent three e-mails to Byeon, expressing how much she enjoyed the film. “It certainly meant a lot to me,” Byeon said. “She said she’d like to see the film being released in Japan as well.”

Though she made her debut with a documentary, Byeon said she isn’t interested in making any more non-fiction films for now.

“I haven’t met anyone who is as fascinating as the women I featured in ‘The Murmuring,’” Byeon said. “I think it’ll be very hard for me to meet people who can be that fascinating.”

“Helpless” opened in theaters on Thursday.

By Claire Lee (
Korea Herald Youtube