If you like your movies hard hitting look no further. Actor/director Yang Ik Joon has turned in one of the most brutal and uncompromising Korean dramas of the year. Korean cinema is an exciting place to be right now, but nothing will prepare you for the raw power of Breathless, an unstoppable juggernaut of pain and torment that refuses to let up until the final credits roll. If it’s fluffy bunnies and pink balloons you’re after then turn away now, Yang Ik Joon’s debut feature isn’t afraid to kick you when you’re down. Repeatedly. Without hesitation.
In fact, it spends most of its ample running time doing just that. Breathless might just be the most appropriate film title of the year. Yang Ik Joon stars as debt collector Sang Hoon, a hostile man that grew up in a household destroyed by domestic violence. He witnessed his mother and sister's deaths as a child, and continues to punish his father for the past. Raging through a life of violence and bitterness, Sang Hoon begins to change after he encounters Yeon Hee (Kim Kkot Bi), a foul-mouthed high school girl who's going through some equally hard times.
This is a tough movie to review in truth. It’s a hard sell from start to finish and I doubt that I’ll be returning to it in the near future. That’s not to say it isn’t worth your time, but the unrelenting violence and perpetual profanity will likely test your patience. It’s a deeply personal film from director Yang Ik Joon and he delivers a standout performance as a result, so it’s not particularly surprising to learn that he bagged a Best New Actor Award at the Blue Dragon Awards for his troubles.
Kim Kkot Bi went one better, her appearance as feisty school girl Yeon Hee secured her two Best Actress Awards, one at the Blue Dragon ceremony and the other came courtesy of the Dae Jong Award Festival 2009. These lead turns are the driving force behind this picture, and even though much of the movie will be hard for viewers to stomach, the same can’t be said for the striking performances of it’s rising stars.
The opening scene is deeply disturbing and events are no more bouncy as the film progresses. Sang Hoon shows no compassion to his fellow man (or woman), wilfully beating on anyone who gets in his way. His only weakness is a surviving sister and her son, but even his nephew gets the rough end of the stick from time to time. The uncontrollable rage that surfaces at every opportunity won't evoke sympathy but he does become a little more bearable as the film progresses, even though any attempts at redemption seem fruitless.
The other characters don’t fare much better, especially the supporting players. Yeon Hee is the most likeable character in the movie, largely down to the fact that her family are assholes. Her crippled father takes out his frustration on her, as does her cowardly brother, he himself an unpleasant character that bathes in the same muddy waters as our wayward protagonist. All in all, Yang Ik Joon has painted a dank and dirty portrait of the kind of life you won’t want to be a part of.
At two hours long Breathless will certainly test your patience. The second act does have a habit of hitting the repeat button on familiar scenes and themes, and a little more time spent in the editing suite would have made for a more satisfying whole. The gritty direction adds welcome weight but many viewers will find the lack of warmth hard going. The relentless violence and profanity becomes a little tiresome after a while, leaving you – the viewer – numb to its touch. That said, the relationship between Sang Hoon and Yeon Hee is handled really well, as is the slow reveal of their tragic upbringings. The ending is perhaps predictable, but the fine performances provide a welcome sense of worth and dare I say it, reluctant sympathy.
Breathless is clearly going to prove a hard sell but I hope it finds an audience on our shores. What it lacks in happy-ending-Hollywood it makes up for in passion and grit. Yang Ik Joon could be worth keeping an eye on then, but only if he learns how to turn his frown upside down. AW