“Breathless” Review – 2009 New York Asian Film Festival

This audacious start to an even more audacious film lets viewers know exactly what they’re in for: an extremely violent and profane film (there are more verbal obscenities per minute than any routine Andrew Dice Clay ever dreamt up) that is as raw and uncompromising as art gets. Yang Ik-june’s astonishing debut film is an indelibly potent depiction of the daisy chain of domestic violence and how it swallows up everyone in its wake, told through the stories of two people whose lives and psyches have been scarred by the violence in their homes.

The first scene introduces the audience to Sang-hoon (Yang Ik-june), a petty gangster who works as the main muscle and debt enforcer for his partner, loan shark Man-shik (Jeong Man-shik). Sang-hoon is a short fuse, reveling in his job of stomping down deadbeat borrowers, demolishing outdoor food stalls, and breaking up student demonstrations. His unrelenting rage is both endless and indiscriminate, as he often fails to differentiate between his own men and those who he has been sent to beat up. His also takes out his anger on his formerly abusive, now prison-broken father Seung-cheol (Park Jeong-soon). However, Sang-hoon meets his match in Yeon-hee (Kim Kot-bi), a high-school girl and one of the few people who willing to directly confront him by way of an expletive-rich invective. Thus begins a very combative friendship between the two. Although they don’t tell the truth about their lives, they recognize each other as kindred spirits, bound together by the violence that is a daily part of their lives. Yeon-hee, like Sang-Hoon, endures a tortured home life of a violent father (Choi Yong-min) and an equally violent brother (Lee Hwan). Yeon-hee helps to bring out a more benevolent side to Sang-hoon, a side we also see as he becomes a father figure to his nephew Hyeong-in (Kim Hee-soo) and gives some of his earnings to Hyeong-in’s mother, Sang-hoon’s half-sister Hyeon-seo (Lee Seung-yeon). However, these brief respites are few and far between, and as the violence in both of their lives escalate, events are set into motion leading to tragic consequences

Writer, director and star Yang Ik-june has created a nervy, brutal, yet tender and heartfelt film that crackles with invention, humor, restless – and yes, breathless, energy. It is also a deeply personal film for its creator, and while he declines in interviews to give specifics on the autobiographical elements, his total investment and symbiotic connection to this material is evident in every frame. Yang has said that he made this film as a form of therapy, to deal with the rage he has often felt in his life. To that end, he made great personal sacrifices to bring this project to fruition, borrowing from family and friends and even selling his house to raise the money to make the film. Yang aims in “Breathless” to give viewers as painfully visceral an experience of violence as possible. He refuses to depict this violence in the cool and stylized way it is often portrayed, especially in other Korean films dealing with gangsters. Yang shows us that violence indeed hurts, with every punch, every bat to the legs, every bottle broken over a skull, every hammer to the head. And it hurts not only the perpetrators and victims, but those forced to witness it, especially children.

Yang presents it all with a mostly handheld camera, and such niceties as aesthetic framing and carefully composed mise-en-scène are clearly less important to Yang than in getting the experience of violence across in the most direct and unadorned way possible. This may prove to be too intense for some – festival screenings of this film are often met with audience walkouts. However, “Breathless”’ unflinching examination of this subject is the film’s most valuable asset. While the film’s domestic violence theme will resonate with audiences anywhere, it has special meaning in a Korean context, where domestic violence is as great a problem as it is rarely discussed in public. The continuing legacies of Confucianism and patriarchy all too often translate into men asserting the dictatorial control over families that they lack elsewhere. In one telling scene, Sang-hoon walks in on one of his deadbeat clients beating his wife in front of their children. As he pulls the man off his wife and begins beating the man, Sang-hoon rails against “fathers in this country” who are “pathetic … but when it comes to family, they’re Kim Il-sung.” This deeply affected audiences in Korea who saw the film at last year’s Pusan International Film Festival; Yang says many in the audience were moved to tears.

Not surprisingly for a film made by an actor, the performances in the film are uniformly impressive. Yang Ik-june embodies his character in a way that beautifully conveys both the brutality and poignancy of this “dung fly” (the literal translation of the film’s Korean title), this marginal and unsavory figure we end up at the film’s conclusion deeply caring for. Kim Kot-bi is a revelation, as commanding a screen presence as Yang, and delivering a wonderfully nuanced and complex performance. Jeong Man-shik is also great, and very funny in the scenes in which he trades profane repartee with Yang. Much like the Godard classic that the English title of this film evokes, “Breathless” heralds the debut of a fully-formed major talent that shows the promise of greater things to come.

“Breathless” screened as part of the New York Asian Film Festival, where it received the jury award for Best Debut Feature.