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In Yang Ik-joon’s stupefying Breathless (Ddongpari), gangsters are only marginally more violent than wife-beaters and equally as contemptible. There is nothing glamorous about the outlaws who inhabit the directorial debut of South Korean actor Yang, or about the astounding ultra-violence that punctuates the film. The main character, the psychotic Sang-hoon, and the boys under his command work in parasitic packs, intimidating and beating up unfortunate people because it is the only life they know.
These low-level thugs are an exaggerated version of the men of South Korea, the casual brutality required in their line of work a heightened form of generalised patriarchal abuse. As Sang-hoon says while pounding a wife-batterer: ‘Fathers in this country’s all fucked up. They’re pathetic fucks but when it comes to family, they’re Kim Il-sung.’ The film presents an uncompromising view of a society where the most primitive law of the jungle prevails: fathers hit their wives and children, brothers bully their sisters, men beat up young boys. Although sons may sometimes rebel against the fathers’ rule, they inevitably end up perpetuating the cycle of violence as adults: Sang-hoon, having witnessed the killing of his sister by his father as a child, has become a vicious debt collector for whom violence is the only mode of social and personal interaction. All relationships are exclusively defined by who takes the beating and who gives it, although these roles regularly rotate, as Sang-hoon observes: ‘The fucker who does the beating thinks he’ll never get beat up. But there comes a day when even that fucker gets a beat down.’
And yet, when Sang-hoon meets tough schoolgirl Yeon-hue, it seems that there might be hope of breaking out of this pattern. Their encounter is shockingly unsentimental, disturbing and funny in equal measures; as the spirited Yeon-hue, although clearly physically weaker, will not let Sang-hoon get away with his usual thuggish behaviour, an unlikely relationship develops between them. Both isolated misfits in their own way, they take tentative steps towards each other, always modulated by diffidence and wariness, their spiky verbal duelling hiding their vulnerabilities and traumas until it slowly gives way to something a little gentler, although the most important things are left unsaid.
This achingly fragile relationship and their hesitant, small gestures are one of the film’s pleasures and relieve the unrelenting bleakness of the world depicted. Yeon-hue is a great female creation, sassy and strong, but profoundly real as, weighed down by familial pressures, she tries to find her own path of resistance against patriarchal law. Sang-hoon, played by Yang himself, is a phenomenal achievement and Yang entirely succeeds in eliciting sympathy for a callous, morally compromised man prone to horrifying acts of aggression. Despite its subject matter and harrowing scenes, Breathless is never depressing, partly because it is infused with the fervent energy of a deeply felt anger, partly because the encounter of Yeon-hue and Sang-hoon offers a glimpse of hope, as the two brutalised characters begin to re-invent a different type of relationship. Breathless is a lot more than a film about domestic violence in South Korea: it is no issue movie, but a profoundly singular, devastatingly powerful, intensely personal vision of both the explicit and hidden violence underlying social and familial relationships.
Read Pamela Jahn’s interview with Yang Ik-joon in the winter 09 issue of Electric Sheep, which looks at what makes a cinematic outlaw: read about the misdeeds of low-life gangsters, gentlemen thieves, deadly females, modern terrorists, cop killers and vigilantes, bikers and banned filmmakers. Also in this issue: interview with The Road director John Hillcoat, the art of Polish posters according to Andrzej Klimowski, Andrew Cartmel discusses The Prisoner and noir comic strips!