Breathless (2008) Movie Review

Brutal Korean indie “Breathless” was obviously a personal project for Yang Ik June, who wrote, directed, produced and starred in the lead role. Certainly, the film is a very brave and raw one, being a partly autobiographical tale of an extremely aggressive and violent man, himself the product of a rough childhood. Dealing with issues of domestic violence, estranged families and self destruction, it quite obviously takes viewers into some pretty dark territory, though not without a glimmer of hope and a deeply felt sense of humanity. Deservedly, the film has enjoyed a successful run at international festivals, winning awards at the likes of Rotterdam, Las Palmas de Gran Canaria and Fantasia, and will hopefully now find a wider audience on DVD.

The film follows a debt collector called Sang Hoon (Yang Ik June), who basically spends his days beating up and intimidating people for money. He himself comes from a background of violence, with his father having killed his sister and caused the death of his mother, something which has shaped his life. Although Sang Hoon isn’t quite all bad, regularly giving money to his surviving sister and his young nephew, he is constantly in the grip of bitterness and near uncontrollable rage, which he takes out on almost everyone he comes across. His life takes an unexpected turn when he meets schoolgirl Yeon Hee (Kim Kot Bi), whose problems echo his own, and the two gradually strike up a relationship of sorts. Things get more complicated when his father is released from prison, forcing him to confront the demons of his past in the only way he knows how.

“Breathless” opens as it means to continue, with a truly shocking scene of Sang Hoon apparently rescuing a young woman from a savage beating, only to spit in her face and assault her himself. This is shortly followed by him being out on a fairly typical job, beating up a crowd of university student protesters. As such, the scene is very much set, with Sang Hoon being relentlessly hostile and attacking everyone he sees, from students to the police, and even his own men. The film is non judgemental, and that in itself may make it hard to watch for some viewers, as director Yang tries to find his humanity in a very even handed manner.

There is little in the way of melodrama or cheap sentiment, and although the redemption theme which emerges is inevitable and the ending itself is rather predictable, the film marks an immensely satisfying personal journey and character arc. Yang is excellent in the lead role, and manages to successful find the man behind the monster, even pushing the viewer to feel sympathy for him, no matter how dark and violent things get. All of his relationships with the other characters in the film are complex, with Yang exploring in particular the bond between children and their fathers, and the way that the cycle of violence is perpetuated through generations.

Sang Hoon’s dynamic with Yeon Hee is at the heart of the film, and is both fascinating and affecting, not least since their meeting happens when he accidentally spits on her when passing her in the street, only to punch her in the face when she complains. Yang never allows things to lazily drift into conventional romance, and instead treats their hesitant relationship as two damaged people looking for some kind of human contact or family. As the film progresses, it becomes about Yeon Hee almost as much as Sang Hoon, with her trying to overcome her own family problems, primarily her insane father who frequently attacks her and a brother who seems set to follow the same path as Sang Hoon. Kim Kot Bi is very impressive in what must have been a very difficult role, and shows herself to be a very talented young actress.

Yang’s direction is gritty and grounded, making for an utterly believable portrait of a man for whom violence is his only form of expression. This does mean that the film is frequently very hard going, and that viewers should be prepared for some graphic scenes. The film is grim and unrelentingly brutal from start to finish, and almost every frame has something unpleasant going on in it. There are a good number of genuinely shocking scenes, which are all the more difficult to watch for their realism. The film’s language might politely be described as earthy, with the script being pretty much non stop swearing and cursing.

However, none of this is gratuitous, and indeed is essential for taking an honest look at an extremely difficult subject. Yang is incredibly brave to have made such a dark, unflinchingly personal film in “Breathless”, and it is to his further credit that it transcends mere catharsis or confession and becomes something engaging and deeply moving.

Yang Ik-joon (director) / Yang Ik-joon (screenplay)
CAST: Yang Ik-joon, Kim Kkot-bi, Lee Hwan, Park Jeong-soon, Lee Seung-yeon-III, Kim Hee-soo

Buy Breathless on DVD