Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Review - Breathless (Ddongpari)

Breathless is the word. Yang Ik-Joon's uncompromising debut feature barely gives its audience a chance to settle in their seats before hitting them with a scene that sets the tone for the entire movie. A man drags a woman by her hair into the middle of the street, and administers a beating while bystanders look on in slack-jawed impotence. One character decides to act, striding forward and attacking the wife-beater, but as soon as that job is done, he turns his attentions on the woman, slapping her around the face and asking, "Why do you just take it?" This is Sang-Hoon (played by Yang, the director), a man whose whole life is defined by violence. He is a debt collector and small-time gangster, who has few relationships and seems permanently on the verge of exploding with anger at the slightest provocation – or even with no provocation at all.

Oddly, this is how Sang-Hoon meets Yeon-Hue (Kim Kot-bi), a schoolgirl with whom he develops a tentative companionship that might just pull him out of his rage-filled abyss. They meet when Sang-Hoon spits at the girl as she passes, and when she complains, he punches her in the face. For some reason, Yeon-Hue is drawn to this stranger rather than repelled by him, perhaps because Sang-Hoon, for all his flaws, never treats her as badly as the older brother or disabled father she lives with. Both of these characters are trapped in an endless and self-perpetuating cycle of violence, and through occasional flashbacks to Sang-Hoon's youth, we see how the influence of his abusive upbringing has shaped his personality in this fashion. In the world of Breathless, violence begets violence, and this is the key point that Yang seems determined to ram home.

Breathless is not an easy film to watch, but not just because of the film's violent nature. Yang's direction is intense, filming in a tight fashion and editing abruptly to ensure the audience is constantly on edge, anticipating another savage outburst. As an actor he has a compelling screen presence, and he manages to convince as hints of humanity are gradually revealed under Sang-Hoon's vicious demeanour. To get to that point, however, you'll have to endure scene after scene of the character calling someone a bitch or a cunt before beating them up, and I'm not entirely convinced that the film's second half is worth wading through the first for. It appears that Yang is a filmmaker with balls and a distinctive vision, but he's also someone who doesn't know when to quit, and Breathless is often repetitively one-note. It is also outrageously overlong, and when he's finished assaulting the viewer, Yang slips into pure melodrama, resorting to such lame plot devices as the fateful decision to take one last job before retirement, and dragging out his climax interminably. By the end, I was bored of Sang-Hoon and frustrated with the film's lack of forward momentum, and while Breathless should be noted as an striking calling card for Yang, it's hard to find many other reasons to recommend it.