Breathless (똥파리, Yang Ik-joon: 2009)

Sang-hoon is a debt collector with an uncontrollable temper and a foul mouth whose daily routine involves beating up anyone who can’t repay the money they owe. A chance incident with a young schoolgirl results in a violent confrontation, but Sang-hoon also finds himself making an unexpected friend…

An unflinching examination of the cycle of domestic violence Breathless is not for the faint-hearted. A remarkable first time in the directors chair for Yang Il-joon – who also writes and stars – Breathless has picked up more than a dozen awards at film festivals around the world, and it’s not hard to see why.

With an opening scene that sets the tone for the following two hours – Sang-hoon dishing out two aggressive beatings – Breathless doesn’t hold back on the swearing, punching and kicking. Filmed in a docu-drama style, there’s no glorification of the violence – this is all nasty and totally brutal stuff. Sang-hoon’s first encounter with schoolgirl Yeon-hue is typically aggressive – the two get into an argument that leaves Yeon-hue unconscious on the pavement. It takes a while for Breathless to open itself up and reveal more than these first shocking layers, but violence is clearly the defining characteristic of Sang-hoon’s job, relationships and lifestyle.

It’s not all negative and horrific though, somewhere in between the difficulties of the lives of its central protagonists, Breathless manages to create a realistic sense of warmth and connection between its characters, often in the most unlikely circumstances. Pretty much every sentence that makes its way from Sang-hoon’s mouth is capped with an insult, but once we get past the aggressive front of his language occasional sparks of humanity are glimpsed. Emotions are never expressed directly but are shown to take different forms – such as his aggressive friendship with his boss Man-sik (played by likeable actor with the same name, Jeong Man-sik) and his hateful relationship with his father.  As his relationship with Yeon-hue grows, Sang-hoon is shown to be more than just a brainless thug. It’s a remarkable performance from Yang Ik-joon who barely allows lets any redeeming traits to slip through, choosing instead to let the character speak for himself – or not – as we learn as much about him through what he doesn’t say – or respond to – as much as that that he does. It’s once he spends time with Yeon-hue that Sang-hoon really starts to let the defences slip – just a little – although its far from an easy ride for either of them, kindred spirits or not. The complex characterisations of Breathless attempt to illustrate how the past defines the present, and how it can prove limiting for the future.

Writer, director and star of Breathless , Yang Ik-joon proves in one fell swoop that he’s not just another actor who has decided to try to spread his wings resulting in a vanity project – far from it. Accomplished in every department – a powerful performance, confident and assured direction and an intelligent well crafted script – Yang Ik-joon manages to not only shine a new light on himself as an actor but proves to be an all round filmmaker to watch in the future. Made as an independent film on a tiny budget, a lot of the buzz surrounding Breathless has focused on it being based on his personal experiences, and there’s a seemingly honest and heartfelt energy that seems to throughout the film.

While in Sang-hoon Breathless has its – literally – struggling core, it also has another, unique, ace up its sleeve in the form of actress Kim Kkot-bi (Midnight Ballad For Ghost Theatre). As the young schoolgirl who appears to be nearly as equally as damaged as Sang-hoon, Yeon-hue proves to be the real heart of the piece. A brave performance that seems way beyond her years, Kim Kkot-bi handles the difficult subject matter with ease – it’s a pretty outstanding performance. The supporting cast of Breathless is as equally assured as the two leads – Lee Seung-yeon, Yoon Seung-hoon, Jeong Man-sik and Choi Yong-min all stand out.

Breathless is not an easy film to watch, tackling the subject of violence and how it affects those on both ends of it is always troublesome to portray on film – even more so when its shown to be domestic – and it not only does so with a realism and judgement that is rarely found on screen, it successfully ties this to a narrative that neatly illustrates the cycles that are perpetuated without feeling convoluted. A powerful film that doesn’t try to offer any quick-fix ideals, Breathless offers only a snapshot viewpoint of the effects violence has on peoples lives and the way that it is repeated throughout generations when relationships are defined by it. It’s a gut-punch of a movie and highly recommended.

똥파리 (Breathless)
Directed by Yang Ik-joon
Produced by Jang Seong-jin
Written by Yang Ik-joon
Starring Yang Ik-joon, Kim Kkot-bi, Lee Seung-yeon, Yoon Seung-hoon, Jeong Man-sik, Choi Yong-min

Breathless Image © Mole Film