REVIEW: DVD Release: Breathless

Film: Breathless
Release date: 22nd March 2010
Certificate: 18
Running time: 130 mins
Director: Yang Ik-june
Starring: Yang Ik-june, Kim Kkot-bi
Genre: Drama
Studio: Terracotta
Format: DVD
Country: South Korea

Breathless is a bleak, relentless and emotionally raw movie from South Korea. An uncompromising look at the violent underbelly of a section of poverty ridden urban South Korea, Breathless is the directorial debut of lead man and scriptwriter Yang Ik-joon, and has rightly been bestowed with a healthy array of awards.

Sang-Hoon (Ik-joon) is a seemingly sociopathic debt collector. He lives with memories of his mother’s and sister’s beatings, and his sister’s subsequent murder at the hands of their father. Sang-Hoon retreats into violence - the only language he truly understands – borne from the guilt of not being able to save his sibling. He strikes up an unlikely relationship with a schoolgirl who herself only understands violence and degradation from her own family.

His violence intensifies as he deals with his father’s release from prison, and the demands of his boss to help train and harden new recruits to the organisation. Sang-Hoon struggles to fit the mould of a good role model to his sad young nephew, the son of a half-sister, a boy he is in danger of colouring with his own nihilistic and antagonistic attitudes. However, the film asks is there hope of emotional redemption for Sang-Hoon, and more importantly does he have the capability to feel anything more than hatred and derision?

This film attempts to pick apart his tumultuous life and to understand why his tendency toward violence has coloured him as it has. It also shows how such unfettered and untreated aggression is locked tight in the DNA of society, threatening to replicate itself endlessly, here in the young nephew he is a reluctant role model to. The opening scene itself, a young man belittling and slapping a woman in the street, sets the tone for an unflinching look at bare-handed violence. Domestic violence may be the catalyst for Sang-Hoon’s downward spiral, but it is not the only uncomfortable brutality on display. Sang-Hoon picks fights with strangers, punches women and even slaps his own nephew. A scene where he puts the boy in an armbar submission hold and taunts him to escape is sad and subtly horrifying

Ik-joon plays Sang-Hoon with a chillingly believable dead-eyed detachment. He refuses to take pleasure in the aggression he dishes out, rather breaking himself free in order to perpetrate it. And in breaking himself free, so often the detachment is now perhaps irreparably permanent. The money hungry youths he trains learn his style quickly, and he makes sure any hesitation or apparent displays of empathy are quickly quashed with a beating of his own charges. For his seeming dumb posturing, Sang-Hoon is not dim to the knowledge that someday, somebody bigger and with more unresolved anger will be the match of him.

Ik-joon plays the vulgar mouthed but understated lead man with such gravitas the viewer can’t help but feel his own life is tainted with brutalism. His perfectly weighted role is supported beautifully by the wonderful acting of his schoolgirl friend Yeon-Hee (Kim Kkot-bi). As she lives with the same cyclical behaviours of belittlement and hostility from her own father and brother, she is inexorably drawn toward that type of man, and finds herself wanting to be with Sang-Hoon. His lone wolf attitude pushes her away at first, but as they need each other more they seek one another for some relief from the drudge and agonies of their own lives.

The sets are landmark-free non-touristic areas of Korea. Life in cold near poverty is depicted with washed out stark backdrops and bleak views. Unstylish clothes and unfashionable furniture help give the film, and its core theme of man’s timeless propensity towards hostility, an ageless appeal, refusing really to put it in any age or generation. The language is littered with the very harshest expletives not for a shock effect but for what Ik-joon sees as the truest reflection of the nihilistic hopeless.

The bleakness and traps of this violent behaviour and the uncompromising way it is fully depicted can be highly uncomfortable. It is in no way glorified. No air punching or wire cables here, just cold connecting fists and kicks that can, at times, nauseate the viewer.

Breathless is stubbornly unwilling to shy away from society’s sicknesses. The many scenes comprising this theme are broken and relieved by two long montages played over with gentle music showing Sang-Hoon, Yeon-Hee and his nephew out in the world, shopping and mixing among functional people and families yet never truly fitting in.

As the films pace allows layers to build and relationship dynamics to be understood and interwoven, nausea and discomfort evolves into empathy and worry, characters you are sure are irredeemable surprise you. The shaky documentary style photography adds to the grittiness and rawness.

Breathless is stark, dark and uncompromising. Well directed and with expertly judged emotional performances, this film has dared to expose the terrible unbreakable cycle of violence in an apparently progressive and evolved society. JM

1 comment:

  1. Coudln't agree more a fantastic achievement for Yang Ik-june and I look forward to what he has to offer us in the future. With a little less swearing perhaps..