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Breathless (2010)
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by Jay Seaver

"A powder keg that comes out of nowhere."
5 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2009 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: "Breathless" is about the parts of South Korea that you typically don't see in the cinema. For all that the nation has a fine and varied film industry, even the gangsters often appear to be at least middle-class; the folks for whom life as a struggle and the neighborhoods they live in are fairly invisible. And then there's Yang Ik-joon, an actor who had mostly been in the background of TV dramas; here, he does everything he can to not be an invisible man any more.

Yang writes, directs, edits, produces, and stars in Breathless, making it outside the Korean studio system and shooting it on the streets. He's struck gold there, making a movie that frequently makes its audience uncomfortable but is oddly hopeful, and uses a string of events that simply seem almost random at times to build a tight story. As a result, he's gone from unseen actor to festival jury member, picking up awards along the way.

He plays Kim Sang-hoon, a man whose motto in life seems to be "just give me a reason". Sang-hoon makes a living as partner and chief enforcer for loan shark Man-sik (Jeong Man-shik), and, brother, you do not want to be late on your payments to them, because although Sang-hoon and Man-sik are sensible enough to know that crippling borrowers makes them unlikely to ever pay you back, Sang-hoon certainly looks like he can get carried away. The only crack in his armor (aside from, maybe, the mild-mannered Man-sik) appears to be neighborhood kid Hyun-in (Kim Hee-soo) and his mother Hyeon-seo (Lee Seung-yeon), whom he looks after and gives most of his money too. Even doing something good like chasing bullies away from schoolgirl Han Yeon-hee (Kim Kot-bi) may be followed by his smacking her for letting them bother her. Still, Yeon-hee latches on to him, as on the balance he's certainly done more for her than her alcoholic father and thuggish brother Yeong-jae (Lee Hwan) ever have.

I don't know whether Yang Ik-joon came up with Sang-hoon because he wanted a part that would get him noticed, but if he did, he succeeds with flying colors. Sang-hoon is a hot-burning star that radiates anger in all directions. To see him, especially in the early scenes, is to wonder what excuse he will find to lash out, whether with fists or profanity-laced insults. It's a raw and memorable performance, especially since Yang doesn't give himself easy hooks. Sang-hoon is not a sadist; he takes no real pleasure in hurting people. Neither is he a sociopath; he's just a man who is less powerful than his anger, and if that anger has any specific source, we're not told what it is. And while he's not pitiably stupid, he is not particularly smart, and lacks the level of self-awareness that would see him recognize his anger as a problem.

So if Sang-hoon is going to grow over the course of the film, it's not going to be the result of watershed moments where Kang can show the character's outlook changing; instead, it's going to be showing Sang-hoon being a little more or less in control than he was the previous day. Kang gives the character little changes in attitude such that we maybe don't see the difference from scene to scene, but certainly add up to something by the end of the film. It's the sort of performance that probably comes together in the editing room, but Kang does a fine job of making sure that he has the raw material to put it together.

The rest of the cast is none too shabby, either. Kim Kot-bi and Lee Hwan keep the movie engrossing even during the scenes where Sang-hoon is absent. They're playing the next generation of this tough neighborhood, both perhaps a glimpse of where Sang-hoon started and maybe where he's headed. Kim is a fine foil for Yang; tough but still seeking someone she can trust, while Lee does an excellent job of making Yeong-jae seem less like a smaller version of Sang-hoon right up until it's clear that he's lost something that Sang-hoon, for all his acting out, still can't shake.

There are other ties between all these characters, too; what appears at first blush to be a fairly straightforward slice-of-life drama is in fact meticulously constructed, leading up to the sort of ending that both provides resolution and implies an ongoing cycle. Yang's direction is as strong as his writing and acting; he not only pieces bits of story together, but he appears to make fine use of cramped, shabby locations to give the look of an area that's lived in but also kind of run down.

Taken all together, "Breathless" is a thoroughly remarkable movie, even before considering that Yang Ik-joon has more or less come out of nowhere to make it. As of this writing, he's just starting work on his second film, and who can tell whether or not he'll be able to capture lightning in a bottle twice. He has captured it once, though, and it's definitely a must-see for fans of high-quality independent film.

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originally posted: 09/18/09 00:22:56
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2009 Seattle International Film Festival For more in the 2009 Seattle International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: New York Asian Film Festival 2009 For more in the New York Asian Film Festival 2009 series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2009 Edinburgh International Film Festival For more in the 2009 Edinburgh International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2009 Fantasia Festival For more in the 2009 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: Fantastic Fest 2009 For more in the Fantastic Fest 2009 series, click here.

User Comments

3/12/11 Saif A. Khan Excellent film. Tough and uncompromising. 4 stars
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  01-Jan-2010 (NR)
  DVD: 21-Aug-2012

  29-Jan-2010 (18)

  N/A (MA)

Directed by
  Yang Ik-Joon

Written by
  Yang Ik-Joon

  Yang Ik-Joon
  Kot-bi Kim
  Man-shik Jeong
  Lee Hwan

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