Hard-headed loser Bong-gu (played by Kim Seung-woo) is technically the main character of "Break Out", in that he has the most screentime, but none of the other characters are aware of this. Bum-soo (played by Kang Sung-jin) holds very strong opinions and won't shut up about them. Chul-gon (played by Cha Seung-won) is a gangster with a score to settle- specifically that he hasn't gotten paid yet. And Yeong-gab (played by Park Young-gyu) pontificates the same campaign speech repeatedly with no regard to context.
What unites all these characters is their basic feeling of helplessness against a giant crazy system that doesn't care about them. So does everyone else on the train, for that matter, who've gotten dragged into this outrageous life-and-death situation solely out of bad luck and would really like to go the whole day without dying. Everyone has such simple wishes, yet nobody can get the people actually running the show to pay attention.
What makes "Break Out" so successful in its cynical satire is that even the the big guys running the conflict are mere humans with their own blatant personality flaws and foibles. But even they can't get any respect because, well, have you ever actually tried to punch another human being in the face? It's actually pretty hard unless you're really angry, and the only emotion any of the characters in this movie can muster up is annoyance.
Now, annoyance can turn into anger, if aggravated long enough, but it's refreshing to see a gangster movie where the tough guys sing karaoke and are on friendly speaking terms with the police. Even the fights in "Break Out" never feel that genuine, which ironically is what makes them so real. We're either having good days or bad days, and there's nothing quite so frustrating as being forced to have a day go worse because someone else decided to pull the honor card.
And poor Bong-gu! In a cast of people who just want to go on with their lives without being humiliated further, Bong-gu seems to have it worse than anyone. But even his ascent to heroism is fueled more by agitation than any desire to be a good person. Right until the end, the man expresses such dogged determination that it's easy to forget his only goal is to recover an item worth less than bus fare.
Of course, we in the audience never forget the stakes, and that's what makes the humor in "Break Out" so potent. When it gets right down to it, almost all of us are weenies unless we're caught up in a giant angry mob. And even the mob runs into comically inconsequential obstacles at critical moments. The movie asks an excellent question- what happens if somebody just says no? Forget context, or politeness, or the way things are supposed to work. What do you do with a person who refuses to cooperate but you don't really want to fight or kill them? It's a long ride to oblivion, and "Break Out" has a lot of fun taking us there.
Review by William Schwartz
Staff writer. Has been writing articles for HanCinema since 2012, having lived in South Korea since 2011. Started out in Gyeongju, then to Daegu, then to Ansan, then to Yeongju, then to Seoul, lived on the road for HanCinema's travel diaries series in the summer of 2016, and is currently settled in Anyang. Has good tips for utilizing South Korea's public bus system. William Schwartz can be contacted via firstname.lastname@example.org.
"[HanCinema's Film Review] "Break Out" + Giveaway"
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