SIFF '09: BREATHLESS Review

If there's one thing I learnt / have reinforced after the movie, is how ubiquitous the Korean swear word which sounds phonetically like "shee-bal" can actually be. It's more versatile than the English language's F-word, and the Korean one can be used to describe a whole host of bodily parts both male and female, with colourful adjectives strung together as well. Either that, or the person subtitling the show has some really colourful imagination to tag some appropriate swear words of his/her own liking, in order to spice up the dialogue for non-Korean speaking audiences.

Breathless is almost like a one-man effort, with Yang Ik-June wearing a number of hats in producing, writing, directing and starring in the lead role of Song-hoon, a violent gangster who doesn't have to think twice when deciding to lay hands on his victims, and insulting them concurrently with his foul mouth. He's a debt collector in a small outfit which he co-founded, but finds more pleasure in being a field agent, bringing along underlings whom he can abuse as well, and show the ropes to, in teaching the essence of collecting money, and to show no mercy to those who cannot pay up.

Most of the violence happen off screen, though the aftermath is seldom shielded in order to elicit a response from the audience. It actually makes for a great 3D movie with objects flying all around and at the screen, from furniture, to fists, and even spit, and I enjoyed the many unintentionally comedic moments that Ik-June effortlessly paints into his narrative despite the very negative elements of violence and language that pepper throughout, and almost every character was left tainted by dishing out, or be at the receiving end of bad signs or an uncouth mouth.

I suppose the question here is, and the issue that Ik-June could have wanted to address, is that of violence, and domestic violence even, if a circumstances of a tragedy would lead to impressionistic youths turning to violence as a means of release and addressing their emotions. Or more directly, if being brought up in a violent environment would lead to the nurturing of violent tempers, given the lack of proper role models, and being unable to break out from the vicious circle as that painted in the film.

Breathless may seem a little too long as it had attempted to give each character equal opportunity to shine, from the schoolgirl that Song-hoon befriends, to his boss, a young boy whom he takes as his own, and his mother, coupled with a protege in the making. It's quite the complete story serving as a cautionary tale and a statement of the never-ending cycle, but would have benefitted from tightening up the pace a little and could have gone under 2 hours. That said however, it did result in enough apathy given toward the characters here, given the anti-heroic stance they're all under, and you'll buy into its story of redemption toward the last act, and the fortification of the positive relationships that Song-hoon had, through his own violent ways, brought together.

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