Yang Ik-joon isn't at all like the character he plays in Breathless. And that's good for him. And us. In fact, it's good for anyone within punching, slapping or kicking distance. For Sang-hoon, an enforcer for a local loan shark in a squalid, unnamed town somewhere in South Korea, is a swirling maelstrom of verbal and physical abuse, lashing out at any and all comers (as well as innocent bystanders, friends, old men, women, children, you name it). We eventually discover the childhood trauma that is the source of Sang-hoon's seemingly bottomless rage and realize that, like everyone else, he's a mixed bag. There's actually a human being lurking beneath that brutal facade; will its gradual emergence lead to well-deserved destruction, or to somehow equally well-deserved redemption?
Yang Ik-joon wrote, produced, directed, and stars in Breathless (2009), a film it took him three years to make. It is his directorial debut. A better name for the film would have been "Vicious Cycle," for that is its underlying theme: The time-honored family tradition of cyclical abuse. They say charity begins at home; so does watching daddy beat mommy to a pulp, or witnessing thugs break daddy's nose for not paying his debts. The takeaway for the child in such circumstances is either A) this is wrong and I will never be this way, or B) this is how things work and as soon as I'm big enough, I'm going to do the same. Both viewpoints are expressed by the variously damaged characters in Breathless. Clearly Sang-hoon has opted for plan B, but Yeon-hee (Kim Kkot-bi), a high school girl he encounters early in the film, is a strong adherent to the A option. This doesn't mean she isn't tough as nails, but hers is a toughness of character. So when Sang-hoon accidentally spits on her in the street, she doesn't let it go. She demands the terrifying thug make amends. Thus begins a unique and unpredictable relationship. Elsewhere, Sang-hoon is trying, in his churlish, awkward way, to develop some kind of bond with his small nephew Hyeong-in (Kim Hee-soo).
While I'm no stranger to violent Korean cinema, I have to admit I was a little wary at the start of this picture. The opening scene begins, in medias res, with a guy beating a woman in the street. Before long, Sang-hoon appears and pounds the guy into the ground. Turning to the bloodied woman, he spits in her face and slaps her repeatedly, asking her why she takes such abuse. It's as if Yang Ik-joon has posed himself a challenge: Create an utterly repellent character and then make him sympathetic. He succeeds, of course, by gradually peeling back the layers of scar tissue until the core person is revealed. Yang has said that Breathless is partly autobiographical, inspired by friends and family members he grew up with in Namgok-dong, a poor town in Chungcheong Province. "Breathless is a story about Korea," he says, "a story about a family. People were able to relate because families are similar, although the degree of family problems vary of course ... it was an exorcism for me." Indeed, the cathartic power of this film is formidable. I came away emotionally exhausted, yet at the same time exhilarated. I suppose you could say that's one definition of great cinema.
In the year since Breathless' release, Yang has been invited to 60 film festivals and received 23 prizes (from the Deauville Asian Film Festival, Rotterdam International Film Festival, Singapore International Film Festival, Tokyo FILMeX, Fant-Asia Film Festival, etc. etc.). The praise is well-deserved and Yang Ik-joon is a name to remember.