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Yang's 'Breathless' Is Breathtaking

2009/04/09 Source

By Lee Hyo-won
Staff Reporter

In an obscure alleyway at night, a man ruthlessly beats a woman. A shadowy figure emerges and intercepts the violent lover's quarrel, but only to slap the victim repeatedly himself, reprimanding her for getting hit by her man.

Is he a hero or villain? It's difficult to say. "Breathless" explores the murky gray zone between compassion and cruelty, redemption and revenge, and the blessings and curses of family bonds. In a nutshell, it's a family drama that's inappropriate for children. While harrowingly violent, however, the multiple-award winning film by director-lead actor-producer Yang Ik-june seethes with warmth and humor.

The film is making headlines for entering almost 20 international film events and picking up top prizes, including, most recently, the SIGNIS Prize and the Audience Award, Wednesday, at the Buenos Aires International Independent Film Festival. And the movie does not disappoint, and establishes Yang as a name to watch out for.

"Breathless" has captured the hearts of French audiences at Deauville ― even though they are more than familiar with the Jean-Luc Godard masterpiece of the same title ("A Bout de Souffle" in French). It features over two hours of the discomforting subject matter of domestic violence against a rundown neighborhood of Seoul, but the movie glimmers with life. One is drawn to the protagonist, Sang-hoon, whom Yang plays compellingly as the most endearing antihero since Kang Cheol-jung of the "Public Enemy" series.

Sang-hoon is someone you don't want to run into on the street. Wearing a frown and an old-fashioned collar shirt with a pair of Nike sneakers, he's prone to mindless fits of violence, punching a passerby if he feels like it. He leads a dreary existence working for an enforcement mob run by an old friend, Man-sik (Jung Man-sik). When he makes money he pours it away at a pachinko parlor. He's probably the only Korean still using a beeper rather than a cell phone.

But just when the jerky, handheld camera establishes him as a despicable thug, you see him looking after his young nephew, though he is careful not to get too close with his half sister, and making sure he steers clear of young children when beating people up. His irate temper turns highly volatile at the sole mention of his father, and we learn that Sang-hoon is a victim of a violent family tragedy that took the life of his mother and sister. "So, does serving 17 years undo the fact that he killed two people?" he asks, enraged with his father.

But the darkest hours always yield to light, and Yeon-hee enters his life like a ray of sunshine. Actress Kim Kkobbi plays the role of the cheeky high school student who doesn't even wince at Sang-hoon's intimidations. The big bad thug is fascinated by the little sharp-tongued girl who goes as far as treating him like her junior, saying "So I'm a senior. Have you even been to school?" He's at a loss for words.

Yeon-hee says that her family life is so peaceful that she needs to be diverted by a lowlife thug. But in reality, they are kindred spirits, as her tough demeanor was crafted over the years of dealing with her violent, mentally disturbed father and rebellious younger brother. Her mother lost her life in a skirmish with thugs, but she finds Solace in the presence of such people in a vicious cycle.

The film depicts the human repulsion against violence but also the disturbing yet cathartic emotional release from submitting to it, and thus the human propensity toward it. But it ultimately traces the human need for hope and redemption.
As Yeon-hee starts warming up his stark existence, Sang-hoon slowly begins to emerge from the dark side. The two unlikely friends find a niche of happiness in babying Sang-hoon's little nephew. Sang-hoo, however, has committed sins for which there is a heavy price to pay.

In theaters April 16. 130 minutes. 18 and over. Distributed by Jin Jin Pictures.

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