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South Korea 2009

Drama, Action

Yang Ik-joon

Yang Ik-joon
Kim Kot-bi
Jeong Man-shik
Lee Hwan
Kim Hee-soo
Lee Seung-yeon
Park Jeong-sun
Lee Jin-suk
Park Byeong-eun
Hong Seung-il
Kim Seon-bin

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Story: Sang-hoon (Yang Ik-joon) is a small-time criminal who is collecting debts. He is a violent individual who is letting his fists do most of the talking and he has no friends besides his boss Man-sik (Jeong Man-shik). Every now and then he gives his sister some money and visits her little son Hyeong-in (Kim Hee-soo). Sang-hoon has experienced nothing but violence his whole life as his father abused his family until there was a fatal incident which is why Sang-hoon's father is in jail. But just now he is released after 15 years and Sang-hoon's old wounds are torn open again. However, the gangster by chance meets the school girl Yeon-hee (Kim Kot-bi) who is really fit to hold a candle to him when it comes to being foul-mouthed. The two become something like friends as Yeon-hee is plagued by the same kind of suffering as the gangster. At home she is being mistreated by her demented father as well as by her older brother Yeong-jae (Lee Hwan). Moreover, of all people Yeong-jae becomes one of the new guys under Sang-hoon, but the gangster doesn't know about Yeon-hee's family.

Review: "Breathless" is a hard movie. In many respects. First of all, there is the swearing. At least three quarters of all dialogues consist of it. A new record, even for a Korean film. And then there is also the physical violence, which the actual focus lies on. Of course it also serves a certain purpose in the movie. The final message of "Breathless" could be wrapped up like this: violence you experience as a child leads to new violence when becoming an adult. This might sound simple, but the way the movie carries this message is unusual, as it is thrown at the viewer with a lot of impact. Over and over again. It's not easy for the faint of heart to endure this film until the very end. This isn't just because of the level of brutality depicted, because there are surely movies that are more extreme when it comes to this alone, but because of the quantity of the brutality shown. Despite its toughness and cold nature the drama in "Breathless" can score at the right times.

It's difficult to get used to the movie's style at first. Every scene is shot with a shaky camera, a lot of close-ups are in the foreground and in fact a lot gets repeated unnecessarily. With a running time of 130 minutes the film surely has gotten too long, especially since Sang-hoon's debt collecting is shown in a bit too detailed fashion. A lot of those scenes could have been cut down. Apart from that there are some scenes, though, in which the film takes its time and tries to capture a certain way of living. Later on, those repetitions also have a purpose as there is a lot of Sang-hoon's past mirrored in Yeon-hee's life. The violent father, the dead mother, the spiral of violence which threatens to devour everything. However, Sang-hoon's chance encounter with the schoolgirl can bring forth certain events in a very odd way that actually gives the gangster the chance to change. He looks at himself from another angle and of course he can't like what he sees.

Actor Yang Ik-joon hasn't just written the screenplay, but is also directing a movie for the first time. Additionally, he is playing the lead role, a thug no one likes and whose life is so much affected by violence that he even doesn't realize anymore when he hits someone. Even women aren't safe from his fists. His inhibition threshold simply is lower than those of other people, probably somewhere near zero. Of course you can't root for such a character as a viewer. He is even outright despicable. Fortunately, there is Yeon-hee who brings more warmth into the film. It never becomes really clear why she is hanging around with a dangerous guy like him, especially after he knocked her out good on their first encounter, but of course you could state: Who undestands women, anyway?! Maybe she is into this type of tough guy or she can look behind the man's facade and sees his actual torment. Whatever the case, the girl succeeds in making the human being behind the gangster visible.

Of course there unfolds a friendship between the two and maybe even more, after all she offially introduces herself to Sang-hoon's sister as his girlfriend! But how old could she be? 15 or 16 at best? Not that anyone in the world of "Breathless" would care. The changes Sang-hoon undergoes are pretty believeable, however, and the few emotional moments are in fact moving. In the gruesome world depicted here any slight trace of emotion seems to be full of heartfelt warmth. The actors are doing an outstanding job for this to be visible on screen and the supporting cast also does its best, more than anyone else Man-sik as the charismatic, actually even likeable gangster boss. It's just a pity that towards the end the film almost becomes predictable. But even after only half an hour you have already ingested so much of the gritty brutality that a Hollywood ending is far out of reach. Every time we believe that some warmth is sneaking into the film there comes another low-blow.

The script could have been cut down a little bit, but the family circumstances, the characters, the violence, the suffering, all of that is of such a credibility that it doesn't surprise that director Yang has worked in some of his own childhood experience. Another thing that is interesting is that despite all the bursts of violence we seldomly really see the act of excercising violence itself but instead get a look at the face of the executioner. Oftentimes this creates a level of violence you don't get to see very often. It's a pity that the camera work creates a feeling of dizziness and that the screenplay hasn't been cut down as "Breathless" is an honest drama which sometimes might seem to be art house cinema but is simply too dirty and violent to be such. Even though this movie might not be for everyone, the drama seems to be a slice right out of real life, no matter if it's a life you don't want to have by any chance. At the end, "Breathless" proves to be really touching and an interessting genre entry. A different drama that can make an impression in its very own way which is why it missed an even better rating just by inches.

(Author: Manfred Selzer)
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