Note: I’m currently working on what should be a longer entry on my favorite film of the year so far. In the meantime, here’s a slightly revised version of what I wrote last year about Yang Ik-june’s Breathless, which I ended up choosing as best film of the year.
Yang Ik-june’s Breathless (Ddongpari) opens with a close-up shot of a man beating up a woman in the middle of a nondescript South Korean street. The camera follows them closely as the man kicks viciously at the prone form of the woman, then pans out to reveal that the scene has a few witnesses, bystanders who watch in shocked silence but don’t react in any other way. Then another man walks into the frame, and proceeds to break up the fight by assaulting its initiator. This newcomer is no knight in shining armor, though. For one thing, he seems a little overenthusiastic in beating the crap out of the other guy, and the fight soon turns into a terribly one-sided beatdown session; even after his opponent has fallen to the ground and shows no sign of even being able to get up, he sits down on his chest and punches him in the face several times for good measure. For another, he does not seem to care overmuch for the woman’s safety. Once he is done beating up her aggressor, he crouches down in front of her, spits in her face, and proceeds to slap her across the face repeatedly. “Why do you just take it?” he asks her several times, most likely referring as much to the abuse he is currently dishing out as to the one from which he rescued her. The camera then closes up on his face as he takes out a pack of cigarettes and lights one up. He only has time for one drag, though, before a blow from an unseen assailant sends him sprawling and we cut to the title card.
Thus ends our first encounter with Sang-hoon (Yang Ik-june), protagonist and antihero (in the strongest sense of the word) of Breathless. Sang-hoon works for the affable loan shark Man-shik (Jeong Man-shik), and his job description includes such fulfilling tasks as the breaking up of student rallies and the recovery of the money Man-shik is due by legions of borrowers. Sang-hoon doesn’t seem to like his job per se, but it gives him an outlet for his anger and violent urges. And those he has aplenty; when out on a mission, his own companions are just as likely to get beaten up as their intended targets. It’s not so much that Sang-hoon can’t tell the difference as that he just doesn’t care. “Could you please try not to beat up the guys too much?” Man-shik says several times, and every time his plea is met either with silence or with one of the numerous insults through which Sang-hoon communicates. Sang-hoon’s anger manifests itself most viciously when he is confronted to his recently-released-from-jail father (Park Jeong-soon), who we soon learn has an abusive past of his own.
Then Sang-hoon meets Han Yeon-hee (Kim Kot-bi), a high schooler who seems not to be afraid of him even after he knocks her out cold by punching her in the face on their first encounter. Sang-hoon and Yeon-hee quickly become friends, though it takes them a while to admit it, and they never stop pestering and insulting each other. Perhaps their reluctant friendship is born of the instinctive recognition that they have much in common. Though Yeon-hee pretends to come from a quiet, affluent family—a lie that Sang-hoon accepts so readily that we cannot help but wonder whether he does not perceive the truth right from the start—she is no stranger to violence; her “quiet” family consists of a widowed father (Choi Yong-min), delusional and violent, and of her brother Yeong-jae (Lee Hwan), who somehow manages to be even more abusive, and ends up being arguably the most monstrous, but also the most tragic, character of the film.
If this strange friendship provides Sang-hoon with a welcome respite from a life of aimless violence and pleasureless gambling, so does his relationship with Hyeong-in, the son of his estranged half-sister Hyeon-seo (Lee Seung-yeon). Sang-hoon awkwardly tries to connect with the young boy the only way he knows how, constantly calling him a “mute idiot”—Hyeong-in is a shy boy who seems at once intimated and enthralled by his uncle, which never ceases to annoy Sang-hoon—and rushing him to put him in an armlock and dare him to try to get out of it when he sees the boy coming back home from school. Above all, Sang-hoon tries to get the boy to come out of his shell, and eventually, and with much reluctance, comes to be a father figure for him.
However, whatever sense of harmony Sang-hoon may derive from his interactions with Yeon-hee and Hyeong-in is not enough to counterbalance the violence he is forced to inflict and witness each and every day, and which takes an ever-increasing toll on his life.
In case I haven’t made it clear already, Breathless is an exceedingly violent movie. French New Wave director François Truffaut once claimed that it is impossible to make a truly anti-war film, arguing that the simple fact of depicting war on the screen is enough to make it exciting, thus defeating the very purpose of the film. The same is often true of violence, though modern filmmakers voluntarily choose to glamorize it more often than not (just think of Michael Bay’s trademark explosions, and of the tedious fights between giant robots to which he might very well continue to subject us well into the 2020s). Not so much in Breathless. The violence depicted here is not meant to inspire awe. The audience is never invited to cheer for its perpetrators. Yang Ik-june films it all with a handheld camera, but Breathless couldn’t be further away from the shaky-cam aesthetics of Paul Greengrass, from the carefully-choreographed-to-look-messy fights that define the Bourne trilogy and its countless, second-rate imitators. Most, if not all, of the fights in Breathless are like the one that opens it; short, brutal, and often terribly one-sided—”fights” is probably too strong of a word for those, since, with very few exceptions, the victims of violence rarely even get a chance to defend themselves, let alone to retaliate. Sang-hoon has no compunction against (literally) kicking a man when he’s done, and neither do the unsavory people he works with. Yang intends you to wince with every punch and kick, to recognize violence for the utterly destructive force that it is, both at an obvious and immediate level, as well as at a long-term one (the somewhat clichéd phrase “circle of violence” has never seemed more apt).
That Breathless contains some autobiographical elements is made obvious by the intensity Yang (who wrote, directed, produced and edited the movie) brings both to his character and to the film as a whole. The theme of domestic violence and of its consequences runs throughout the film and provides some of its most disturbing and heart-wrenching scenes, such as that early flashback in which we are made to see, through the eyes of a 10-year-old Sang-hoon, the events that led to his father’s imprisonment and assuredly played a part in his own descent into a life of violence. And what about the psychological torture to which Yeon-hee is daily subjected by her brother? When she refuses to give Yeong-jae the money he tries to extort her, he goes into her room, takes her school uniform, and threatens to tear it to pieces, keeping her at arm’s length and taunting her like he would a child until she is reduced to tears. When Sang-hoon walks in on a man beating his wife in front of their children, he goes berserk and proceeds to pummel the man with a toy truck while delivering a heroic rant against the cowardice of Korean fathers who act like “they’re Kim Il-sung” at home. “But some day,” he adds, “you run into someone like me.” Yet this Dirty Harry-like semi-boast is tinged with despair; for every deadbeat husband who gets what’s coming to him, how many are left free to terrorize their wives and children?
In spite of all that, Breathless never feels preachy. Even when Sang-hoon seems to be acting as a mouthpiece for Yang, as in the aforementioned scene, it never feels forced, as we understand exactly where his character is coming from. This is due not only to Yang’s screenwriting skills, but also to the strength of his cast. Yang is pitch-perfect as Sang-hoon, and so are Kim Kot-bi as Yeon-hee and Jeong Man-shik as Sang-hoon’s partner and friend Man-shik (I was astounded to learn that Breathless was the first acting experience for both Kim and Jeong, as they deliver performances that would make a seasoned veteran blush). Even young Kim Hee-soo is great as Sang-hoon’s nephew Hyeong-in.
This great cast turns Breathless into a film that is at once brutal and earnest, nerve-wracking and at times surprisingly funny. The combative friendship that unites Sang-hoon and Yeon-hee is the source of much hypocritical humor, as they constantly bemoan each other’s lack of respect and foul language, knowing full well that they are guilty of the exact same thing (“do you have to talk like that?” Yeon-hee asks at some point, before muttering “asshole” under her breath). The relationship that Sang-hoon half-reluctantly builds with his 6-year-old nephew also has its hilarious moments, as Sang-hoon makes for quite the unorthodox father figure. “Say goodbye to your uncle,” Hyeon-seo tells her son as Sang-hoon leaves them after having been coerced into staying for dinner, and Hyeong-in waves at his uncle. Sang-hoon stares at his nephew for a moment, then flips him the bird. Hyeong-in, unperturbed, responds in kind.
Man-shik, Sang-hoon’s boss, seems at first glance to serve mostly as comic relief. He seems much too jovial to be an effective loan shark, and treats his employees like he would younger friends, taking them out for drinks (and getting utterly smashed himself in the process) and complimenting them on their looks (“You’re really cute,” he says upon seeing a new recruit for the first time. “Look at these eyebrows!”). He trades insults and jabs with Sang-hoon almost as often as the latter does with Yeon-hee, but unlike the schoolgirl, he almost always finds himself on the losing end of those exchanges. This doesn’t seem to be a persona; Man-shik really seems to be a very nice and friendly man, who just so happens to be running a successful loan shark operation (though we do see a different side of him during a flashback). However, upon closer examination, there turns out to be more to Man-shik than just bubbling comic relief. This is a man who is deeply concerned for his friend and who tries, clumsily, to help him. “You should stop gambling,” he tells Sang-hoon, and goes so far as to try to write him checks instead of paying him in cash so that he cannot spend it all right away. He hands him money to give his father, much to Sang-hoon’s disgust. Man-shik tries desperately to be a positive influence on Sang-hoon’s life, though he isn’t nearly as successful as Yeon-hee. Yet the amount of abuse he is willing to take hints at the extent of his dedication to Sang-hoon.
In its last third, Breathless veers deeper and deeper into drama territory, delivering one emotional sucker punch after another (I rarely cry at movies. I have now seen Breathless three times; I cried every single time). Yang does not rely on unexpected twists to shock his audience–there is one early on in the movie, when it is revealed that Sang-hoon is partly responsible for the death of Yeon-hee’s mother, but Yang tastefully refuses to go that way and neither character is ever made aware of it. Instead, he has his characters face the consequences of their choices to the very end, and is as relentless there as he is in the depiction of violence.
Perhaps the most powerful scene of the entire movie (and, truth be told, one of the single most beautiful scenes I have seen in a while) takes place towards the beginning of that last third: at the end of a night that can legitimately be said to have been a nightmare for the both of them, Sang-hoon and Yeon-hee reconvene to have a drink. They sit outside on some steps, with nothing but the night sky behind them. For a while they don’t say much, and what little they say betrays their weariness, though they both refuse to tell the other what they have just been through. Then Sang-hoon lies down on the steps and puts his head in Yeon-hee’s lap. She is understandably surprised, as their relationship so far has not included much physical contact (if one disregards the punch to the jaw that started it all). She starts to protest, but when she looks down at him, she realizes that Sang-hoon has broken into tears. Soon she is crying, too. The camera remains focused on them for a while, then fades to black. Putting into words just how much impact that scene has isn’t easy. It represents an enormous breakthrough for both characters, and by the time it happens, you empathize enough with both of them to realize just how far they have had to come to be able to even just cry alongside each other.
Breathless could end on that perfect picture, but it doesn’t. This moment of peace is but another respite, before violence takes hold of their lives again. When Breathless does end, though, it does so with a shot that is at once perhaps the saddest of the whole movie and the most hopeful as well, depending on how one chooses to interpret it. It feels a little clichéd to talk of Yang’s film as a story of redemption, yet that is what it ultimately is (whether Sang-hoon believes himself to be capable of redemption is up for debate). And though it is a long and difficult journey, there are moments of peace along the way, such as the few scenes in which Sang-hoon and Yeon-hee (later accompanied by Hyeong-in) walk among the stalls of an open-air market. Those are the only scenes in which Yang makes use of a soundtrack, and the music, calm and soothing, drowns out every other noise. The camera sometimes loses track of the characters, then focuses on them again as they wander through curio shops and food stalls. In those moments, Sang-hoon and Yeon-hee are but faces in the crowd, anonymous and, however temporarily, at peace.