Violent, bleak gangster cum domestic violence film. Powerful, if not perfect calling card from a promising young director.

Released in 2009, certified UK-Not Yet Rated. Reviewed on 25 Jun 2009 by Scott Morris
Breathless image

To be honest, of late I've been somewhat disappointed with the films coming over from South Korea of late. While at the height of the Chan Wook Park fuelled heyday we seemed to be seeing superb, tightly paced minor masterpieces that genuinely warranted the terms edgy and provocative in their original meanings, not their usual euphemisms of 'pish'. Before long, anything at all that was being made was being shipped over with as part of brand, almost, and it only went to show that the SK industry is as capable as any other of stamping out cookie-cutter nonsense, as evidenced by the likes of The Host and The Chaser.

Still, there was some reason for cautious optimism with Breathless, the first feature outing from sickeningly young director Ik-june Yang based on some earlier industry hype. I can see where they're coming from, although the film itself perhaps doesn't quite justify all of the hype, it's a startling calling card from Yang that marks him out as a director to keep a close eye on.

Sang-hoon (played by Yang himself) is a thug, working for his elder friend, also a thug, as part of a gang of thugs for hire. If you have a problem, and no-one else can help, maybe you could call a gang of thugs. Having set themselves up as both hired muscle and a loan sharking and collection agency. While it might be somewhat redundant to say so, Sang-hoon is not a nice guy. What with all the thuggery and all.

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At least the proceeds of his facepunching antics aren't completely wasted, with a good portion going to help look after his nephew and half-sister. His relationship with his father is characterised largely by sang-hoon swearing and facepunching said father, recently released from prison after having accidentally killed Sang-hoon's younger sister. Well, I say accidentally. She really just got in the way of one of the frequent beatings doled out in the mother-father relationship. The mother then promptly gets killed in a road traffic accident. Happy families.

Another equally happy family lives just down the road. Senior schoolgirl Yeon-hee (Kot-bi Kim) initially finds herself just another target of Sang-hoon's expletive filled campaign of disrespect for everyone, although having the temerity to question him on his actions earns her some respect with Sang-hoon. Well, first it earns a punch to the face, but once that's all dealt with the two become friends, of sorts.

Her life is no less, for want of a better term, shitty than Sang-hoon's. With her mother dead and her father, a Vietnam vet, needing to be cared for and having delusions that his wife is really just away sleeping with other men, there's no want for stress in the household. And that's before Yeon-hee's elder brother starts a new job with Sang-hoon's thuggery squad and also starts to embrace casual violence as a valid lifestyle choice.

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Powerful and shocking are words thrown about far too often in relation to movies, and almost invariably in association with films that really don't deserve them. Breathless comes about as close to deserving them as anything else I've seen during this year's EIFF. On it's surface it's yet another gangster flick, but at it's heart it's really far more about the horrors of domestic violence and the strange thing that the family unit is.

Taken as a film, it's certainly not perfect. It's a shade too long, particularly in the opening acts where it's establishing Sang-hoon's credentials as a total arsehole. It's captivating to watch this, but it also does far too good a job of it. Having established him so well as an unsympathetic character, the doomed final act turn towards redemption doesn't have quite the emotional hold that it needs, what with Sang-hoon being a git and all.

That aside, there's enough here to recommend that anyone who's been enamoured of the Korean film scene before check this one out. Structurally it might somewhat hole the narrative, but there's enough style shown in the the film to at the very least mark Ik-june Yang as a film-maker to keep a very close eye on in the coming years. Going forwards, I'm sure this won't remain his strongest work, but it's an impressive debut.

Were I in the business of passing quantifiable judgements, I'd award this 4/5 TippyMarks.

Yang Ik-Joon
Cast list:
Yang Ik-Joon (Sang-Hoon)
Kot-bi Kim (Yeon-Hue)
Man-shik Jeong (Man-Sik)