NYAFF 09 Review: BREATHLESS
[Our thanks to Dustin Chang for the following review.]
I don’t know how they decided on its English title, but this film’s Korean title Ddongpari literally means “shit-fly”, and it’s a fitting title. With a shaky handheld opening scene, the film starts with a man physically assaulting a woman in the streets of Seoul at night. Enter Sang-Hoon (writer/director/star, Yang Ik-Joon) who proceeds to beat up the man, and in turn, the woman while spewing expletives constantly. Breathless is an unrelentingly brutal film in its depiction of violence and its titular anti-hero’s dirty mouth. It’s safe to say about 95 percent of dialog consists of profanity.
From a broken family, Sang Hoon is driven by his hate for the father who killed his mother, and served 15 years in prison. He beats his father, his crew, student protesters, men, women, motorcycle cops… pretty much anyone he encounters. He even often curses out his own boss, a mild mannered loan shark, in front of his gang. The only people he is kind to (in his brutish way) are his saintly sister and lonely young nephew, to whom he passes his earnings on.
Things take a slight turn when he meets a high school senior Yeon-Hee (Kim Got-Bi) by chance. Their encounter is just as violent as his other encounters- she slaps him and he knocks her cold. He sees something ferocious in her and their expletive-filled platonic relationship begins. In a way, Yeon-Hee is Sang Hoon’s alter ego - tough, foul-mouthed, coming from a similar background where domestic violence was as common as kimchee on your dinner table. Her younger brother is destined to be a criminal- another link between her and Sang-Hoon’s underworld. She can’t take the ugly reality at home and finds a little oasis in the company of Sang-Hoon, his sister and the little boy.
Breathless is gritty, violent and devoid of any romanticism associated with the usual lowlife gangster film genre. It’s an examination on the cyclical nature of violence. The look of the film captures the reality of the underprivileged class in Korea: the characters’ tiny living quarters, the seedy street corners, the unglamorous faces of the actors. Everything feels very authentic down to smallest details (cheap Chinese food, outdoor snack vendors, drinking in public, gameboy envy, etc).
It's a tad bit predictable- the harder they come, the harder they fall. The violence and kids crying faces finally get to Sang-Hoon and force him to contemplate quitting his criminal ways. Some of the handheld scenes seem amateurish. Flashback expositions can be overbearing. But it doesn't really matter. Yang’s performance is nothing short of a revelation as a small time thug who is living, breathing violence. He immerses himself in a physically demanding role and creates a completely authentic character. Kim Got-Bi as Yeon-Hee, a tall, round faced, tough high school girl who is not intimidated by Sang-Hoon is also terrific. Her unassuming presence and inner strength balances out Yang’s hard-edged criminal.
The violence in Breathless is not stylized. It’s grotesque. This is far from Park Chan-Wook film. We see unfettered brutality again and again that we get tired the ugliness of it all as Sang-Hoon does. And this is why the film works. By the time the emotionally charged climax rolls around, we are completely invested in this hard-to-love brut. Yang has more in common with Shane Meadows way of filmmaking than what its English title evokes. If you can stomach the violence, Breathless is a very rewarding film.
Review by Dustin Chang