Monday, April 7, 2014

The Woman of Mystery

握った手の温もりが 唯一な確かなもの
『Mysterious』 (Naifu)

The only real thing is the warmth when I hold your hand
If I'd know everything about you I have the feeling we couldn't go on
"Mysterious" (Naifu)

To keep things internationally attractive, a South Korean movie today! (And it's not even the first time on this blog!)

Hwa-Cha ("Fire Chariot", official English title Helpless) is a 2012 movie from South Korea, based on Miyabe Miyuki's Kasha ("Fire Chariot", released in English as All She Was Worth), a book I reviewed some months ago. The story is set in 2009, Seoul. A few days before their wedding, veterinarian Jang Mun-Ho and his fiancee Kang Seon-Yong take a short rest at a motorway rest stop on their way to Mun-Ho's parents. When Mun-Ho returns with two cups of coffee, he finds his fiancee gone from the car. He can't reach Seon-Yong on the phone and only finds one of her hairpins in a restroom. When he visits her apartment, he finds it completely ransacked. Finally, Mun-Ho discovers that Seon-Yong's credit history was tainted by bankruptcy and she was told that over the phone right before her disappearance. Mun-Ho's asks his cousin, Kim Jong-Guen (an ex-cop), to help him find her, but their investigation leads to only more questions, when they discover that the name Kang Seon-Yong doesn't belong to the woman Mun-Ho was going to marry. Who is the woman and why was she using someone else's name?

I was told about the existence of this movie by a friend around the time it was first released, and it piqued my interest, as I was a bit surprised they'd make a movie based on Kasha in South Korea: I knew the original novel was well known in Japan, but to have it picked up as a movie in another country? (Then again, there are those rumours they're going to do Norizuki Rintarou's Yoriko no Tame ni in South Korea too...). But the title stuck in my mind, and it was the sole reason I bought a copy of Miyabe Miyuki's famous book. And now I finally saw the movie. The circle is complete.

The story may be set in a different time and space, and everyone has different names, but Helpless is mostly a faithful adaptation. Which means that it is still a compelling search for a woman of mystery (though with a little bit less social commentary in Helpless). The movie runs for about two hours and manages to fill that time in a meaningful, captivating way. Cinematically, I thought Helpless was a solid performance too. There are one or two scenes where the actor playing Jang Mun-Ho gets a bit close to hamming up the role, but he manages to keep it in check. Just. For more about the story, I refer to the review of the original novel as it's really mostly the same. Okay, there are some other changes like Jun being a banker in the original novel, while his counterpart Mun-Ho a vetenarian, but that aside, there are only two major changes. And they kinda hurt the story.

First of all, in the original novel the fiance Jun kinda drops out of the story relatively early on. The rest of the investigation is carried out by the detective Honma. This resulted in a more objective view on the investigation, as Honma had no personal interest in the woman who had disappeared. In Helpless, Mun-Ho keeps working together with Jong-Guen, adding a lot of personal human drama as he wants to find out who his fiancee was. This isn't bad per se, but it does link with the second change.

Which is that the woman formerly known as Kang Seon-Yong is visually present throughout the whole movie. One of the characteristics of the original novel was that we never got a direct glimpse of Sekine Shouko: we'd learn about her through people who had known here, through some lines written on a resume or some other document, but always indirectly. There's not one direct quote from her in the fairly large volume. In Helpless however, we see the woman known as Kang Seon-Yong constantly, from the beginning when we first see her disappear, to flashbacks by Mun-Ho and even occasional shots of her in real time. It kinda takes away from the "phantom lady" idea of the original novel, where it's never clear if she really exists until the very end. I get that as this is a visual medium, it's kinda hard to make a movie where the single most important person in the narrative never appears on screen, but I can't help but feel a bit disappointed by this change.

The ending is also quite different, which is because of the above mentioned changes: the original novel was about the search for a phantom, an unknown woman by Honma, Helpless is about Mun-Ho's search for his lost fiancee Seon-Yong, a much more personal search. The movie therefore goes more deeply into the relation between the two characters, something not present at all in the original novel and it offers an ending that involves these two persons. I prefer the way it was done in the original, but I can imagine that as a more human, personal story, Helpless is more satisfying.

Overall, Helpless is a decent movie to watch. It's kinda cool to see that Miyabe Miyuki's story can be set somewhere else in a different time, and still be as compelling. I feel that some of the changes kinda mess with the better parts of the original novel, but I'll admit that these changes make sense considering this is a movie, and it does give Helpless its own take on the story.

Original Korean title(s): "화차" based on  『火車』 by 宮部みゆき


  1. Just wanted to say that I finally had the chance to read Arisugawa's Kotou Puzzle in Chinese! And it was a real blast, reminding me why Queen-logic is so awesome. I already knew what I was getting into when I read your review of that book, but when that final chapter rolled around and Egami pumping out one logic deduction after another like a factory--- all based on one single item, it's absolutely fantastic. It's times like these, I really wish more books like these should get to see the light on the English side of community.

    Eagerly awaiting for the arrival of the Chinese version of Castle of Queendom in my mailbox :)

    1. Seeing you all enthusiastic about it makes me want to read it again XD (But I just finished another Arisugawa novel that, while not as impressive as Puzzle, still did something similar, so I'll just hold off a re-read for now...)

      Great to hear you enjoyed it, and hope you'll find the Castle of the Queendom to your liking too!