Holy Shit – Breathless

There must be a record broken by the Korean film ‘Breathless’ somewhere. Perhaps not in the fact that it drew in a crowd of over 120,000 people. It doesn’t exactly sound like much, but bear in mind that this is about as low-budget and as independent as low-budget, independent cinema gets. Consider also the fact that during its release, it had to contend with other heavyweights like ‘Duplicity’ and ‘Knowing’, as well as Korean hits ‘My Girlfriend is An Agent’ and ‘Thirst’; ‘Wolverine’ followed suit a fortnight after that.

So it did make a fair amount of money in terms of box office numbers, I expect, partly because the film was relatively popular, and had a good word-of-mouth, but also partly because it was quite cheap to begin with. I don’t know how cheap, exactly, but you get the idea while watching the film.

However, it is not the money records that I want to draw your attention to. It’s the amount of swearing and cursing that went on from the very first scene to the very last.

Hobbit migration to Seoul is on the rise.

It seems as if half the characters have decided to step off the silver screen of a Quentin Tarantino film and decided to make the backwaters of Seoul their own living playground. You cannot get past a single sentence without a single character swearing or cursing in one way or another. If you had relied on the subtitles exclusively, it may indicate that there is a fair variation to these curses, but not if you’re somewhat familiar with the Korean language. Ultimately, all these characters (especially the main one though) is saying is little more than variations of ‘f*ck’, ‘bitch’ and ‘crazy’.

OK, now that I have managed to get that out of the way…

‘Breathless’ opens with a man slapping and hitting someone who appears to be his girlfriend. It is on the outside, late at night, and perhaps they have just finished their clubbing activities. Along comes Sang Hoon (Yang Ik-june, also the film’s director, scriptwriter, editor, producer and probably teaboy as well), who proceeded to beat the living hell out of the man. Then, in a swerve so big it might as well have been straight from the squared circle of professional wrestling…he spits in the girl’s face. He then slaps her, and slaps her again. And again, and again. He then takes out a cigarette, lights it up, and…someone blind sides him, kicking him in the head. In a nutshell, that is what the whole movie is about: a seemingly-endless cycle of violence.

Within this cycle, though, he is not alone. He spends a lot of time with a young boy, though the nature of the relationship between the two of them is not quite clear at first. He comes across a young schoolgirl, Yeon-Hee (Kim Kkot-Bi), a strong young lady who became one of the few who would actually stand up to him (and she’s got quite a mouth on her to back herself up as well). He works for his friend and loan shark, Man-Sik (Jeong Man-Sik) a man who may seem to be somewhat heartless in a way (you’ve got to be to be a loan shark, right?), but he seems like an angel in comparison to Sang Hoon himself. Sang Hoon revels in the violence that his job brings. Sir Alex Ferguson once stated that former Chelsea player Dennis Wise is someone who can start a fight in a room all by himself. That statement can safely and totally be used to describe Sang Hoon. 

The stalker got close enough for this shot…

Despite all of that, however, we see glimpses of a softer side to the man. Early on in the film, it is shown that his father had caused the death of both his sister and mother, and it was an ill-feeling that he carried deep into his adulthood, a feeling that manifested itself in the violence that he subjects others to. It’s telling that such a background is given early on. You know how ghost stories stops being so scary once the ghost is given a reason to exist, to remain on in this world? Once they have a reason that you and I can comprehend, we are allowed some ability to understand the reason, and to relate; with this, we can also humanise the ghost. It’s a similar device here; no matter how vile and abusive Sang Hoon becomes to those around him, I find myself somehow rationalising all of that away. That device is utilised early on in the film, and because of that, you’re likely to have some empathy for him.

And boy, do we need it. His is a difficult character to like, to be honest. I stated earlier that he is someone who totally thrives on the existence of violence. In some ways, that doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface with this film. He treats women the same way he treats a lot of his underlings at work. How does he treat them? By slapping them around a lot (it appears that the weak point of a Korean would be somewhere in the region of the head; they might be all bravado, but a simple slap or tap might do the business).

If only she could give him a won for his thoughts...He continues to unleash all of his anger and violence throughout the film. Violence tends to be utilised for impact, existing as mere dots along the narrative line, the exception rather than the rule. This helps to create more impact when it does occur, but here, 'Breathless' takes violence and makes it its raison d'etre. Sometimes there is a specific reason for it, sometimes there isn't. Sang Hoon, however, saves his special beatings for his own father, who, after having served time in jail for his part in killing his own family, is now released from jail. Man-sik tries hard to make him see sense, to put him on the right path, so to speak: "Orphans like me wish that I at least have a dad like you do." Sang Hoon doesn't seem to think appreciation is the case; rather, he comes to his father almost every other night, hell-bent on beating him, believing that he had not done enough to pay for his sins.Familial violence isn't one that is limited only to his family, however. Yeon-hee also faces similar problems at home, with her father unable to recall that his wife had passed away years ago. In many ways, hers is an even more depressing story. It doesn't help that her brother, Yeong-Jae (Lee Hwan), leeches off her and his father, eventually joining up with the same loan shark enforcers as Sang Hoon. Here once again, we see the consequences of being involved in such a circle of violence. Though Yeon-hee doesn't quite know about it, Yeong-jae is assigned to Sang Hoon, and Sang Hoon being the lovely mentor that he is, proceeds to not just show him the ropes, but to precisely detail how it should be tied around the victim's neck before hanging them out to dry. OK, so that's more of a metaphorical attempt to describe the situation more than anything else, but you get the idea. Yeong-jae's bravado risks being exposed and punctured, but in the face of overwhelming influence by Sang Hoon i.e. being slapped around a lot, he becomes more and more violent.His search for the recycling bin was fruitless.

It is a vicious circle to be a part of, and that makes ‘Breathless’ one of the roughest films I have seen in a very long time. There is a certain visceral pleasure to be gained from watching it, mainly because you really feel the vividness of their livelihoods. These may not be the people you’d find in your day to day life, but you can’t escape the feeling that these characters do exist somewhere in your city. They find themselves stuck in the same situation, facing the same options, day in and day out, with little to no way out. ‘Breathless’ explores violence, but it does little by way of glorifying them, so you don’t have to worry so much about that. In fact, despite the fact that the film takes a special character to stomach at times, having seen the whole film, I’m tempted to say that the film is anti-violence.

You can’t help but care about these characters, about these people, who looks for nothing more than a better tomorrow. That sounds like I am somehow looking down on them, but the tragic nature of this cycle is such that it’s difficult not to sympathise with them. Sang Hoon, especially, became a very, very tragic character. It’s almost a quintessential Greek tragedy in some ways, and if you’re somewhat familiar with some of that concept, then you can see the ending come from a mile away.

The fact remains that despite its comparatively low budget, this film aimed for the skies, and just about reached it, I think. If ever you have a chance of watching this movie at a festival somewhere, don’t miss it. Perhaps it’s better to watch it on DVD, though; the quality on the small screen is excellent, and I am not sure how this film (digitally shot) will hold up on a really big screen.

Fikri wants to try to hit a Korean in the head. Just once…

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