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Review: ‘Heartbeat’ Is a Deft Mix of Drama, Suspense and Incredulity (South Korea)

By  · Published on August 9th, 2012

Little Ye-eun is dying. The child has a weak heart on the edge of failure, and if she doesn’t get a transplant soon it will be too late. Her mother, Yeon-hee (Kim Yun-jin), is desperate and willing to go outside the usual channels to find her daughter a heart. An opportunity arises from a shady source, but when Yeon-hee is introduced to the still-living man whose heart she’s meant to have she decides that taking advantage of his situation is going too far.

And then her daughter gets even sicker.

Hwi-do (Park Hae-il) is a wannabe thug always looking for the angle that will net him a payday. He constantly harasses his estranged mother for money, but shortly after she cuts him off for good with a final payout she has a stroke and ends up in a coma on life support. Knowing the woman’s prognosis is poor, Yeon-hee offers money to Hwi-do if he’ll pull the plug so the heart can go to little Ye-eun.

What should be a simple (if not morbid) transaction soon spirals out of control when Hwi-do decides he wants his mother to live and Yeon-hee decides she’s done waiting.

“Are you a bad person?”

The beauty of writer/director Yoon Jae-geun’s feature debut can be summed up with a single word… balance. He carefully moves his story back and forth between scenes of heartfelt drama and true suspense. The two intertwine together as if they were two sides of the same genre coin, and the result is characters you care about and tension that matters.

Even more important though is the balance between the black and white natures of the two lead characters. It seems clear from the beginning that Yeon-hee is the good one worth rooting for while Hwi-do is the bad guy viewers will come to despise. Except it’s not that simple. As in real life the film’s world consists of far more grays, and the trade positions on the moral scale more than once through actions both expected and surprising.

Yeon-hee’s desperation leads her to offer her own heart to save her daughter, and the infeasibility of the gesture doesn’t make it any less wrenching. But her earned sympathy is threatened by what she does next. And Hwi-do is clearly a money-grubbing tool, but when he discovers his mother’s secret his true feelings come out and begin to fuel his questionable actions out of love. Neither person is truly good or bad, and that honest humanity helps raise the film above the fray.

That atypical moral equity comes at a cost however in the film’s approach towards the police and medical profession. There seemingly aren’t any of the former, and the script plays fast and loose with latter in regard to what hospitals and doctors will and won’t do. Or maybe Korean health practice allows people to drag in their donors of choice with very few questions asked, I don’t know…

The acting here is quite good across the board even in the most dramatic scenes that in lesser hands could have turned maudlin and melodramatic. Kim, most recognizable from ABC’s Lost, brings believable heart and, when necessary, an intense viciousness to her role as a mother at wit’s end. Park is equally good at oozing vileness as he is at making viewers just want to hug the poor guy. Both actors keep their characters believably fluid so that it’s never easy to label a hero or villain.

Heartbeat ranks easily as one of the better Korean thrillers in recent years of the kind that eschews hardcore violence for legitimate suspense and story. Yoon’s debut bodes well for his future as a filmmaker too… provided someone doesn’t decide they want his heart for a quick transplant.

Heartbeat was recently released on DVD by Cinema Asia Releasing and is available from Amazon

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Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.