I met Breathless director Yang Ik-June over dim sum in Montreal when his film played at the Fantasia Film Festival. He seemed such a nice, quiet, unassuming young man. Who knew that behind the modest exterior lay a writer-director-actor who pulls no punches, literally and figuratively, with his first feature length film. I heard praise for the film for months before I saw it this past Sunday at the closing night of the Toronto Reel Asian International Film Festival, and the praise is certainly well earned.
Yang plays, Sang-Hoon, a thug who uses his fists as his employment, extorting protection money from hapless victims for his friend, and occasionally doling out his own brand of fist-vengeance on those he feels deserve it (both perpetrator and victim alike). He is constantly aggressive, no matter how good or kind those around him are, including a half-sister, to whom he gives most of his income to look after his nephew. Sang-Hoon one day meets a schoolgirl who is just as rough as he is. It’s no wonder why, for they both come from violent homes where the only response is violence and screaming. Growing up in such an environment, whether physical and emotional violence are bread and butter, it seems almost impossible that anyone coming out of that would not automatically function in the same manner.
Domestic violence is apparently rarely spoken of in Korean society. There’s no reason to believe it is more or less common than in other cultures, but Yang brings it to the front. The camera is almost constantly in a medium or close shot, and the sound mix makes every punch sound hollow, smacked and real. It is the perfect use of the hand-held camera, a camera that gets into the action in the way that a real set of eyes would there in the room or on the street. It is almost as if the camera is the bystander who is affected by what they see, but cannot or will not intervene. The audience cannot get away from it – even if you close your eyes you can still hear it, and while I (like much of the audience) do not understand Korean, after a few of the scenes you have a fair idea of the horrifying obscenities being shouted and can guess at what is being said.
I would put this film and Yang in the same class of the new socialist realist filmmakers, along with Britain’s Andrea Arnold. Their work does not shy away from the violence and general hopelessness of the lives of the poor, the impossible situation of women and girls, and the endless cycle of pain and violence. A triumphant and intense debut.