Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

This Korean gangster flick has much more in common with the gritty vehicles associated with Ray Winstone than slicker East Asian fare. The world of Breathless is a place where violence begets violence from the cradle to the grave - and where the distance between the two may be covered in a heartbeat. And in the spotlight is that most insidious violence of the all, the sort that takes place within the family home.

Yang Ik-june proves he's a man of many talents, directing, writing and taking on the central role of Sang-hoon - a petty gangland hard guy, who spends most of his working day beating people to a pulp to extract payments for the local loan shark. His is a world in which even expressions of love have a violent aspect, as he wrestles and 'roughs up' his pre-school nephew, unwilling or, as we come to suspect, unable thanks to his own upbringing, to find a gentler way of showing his affections. When he encounters high school student Yeon-hue (Kim Gol-bi) in the street and she pulls him up for spitting, his first reaction is to punch her lights out and ask questions later.

Copy picture

The beginning of the film is so violent both in its physicality - the camera hunkers in so you can feel the blood spatter - and language that there are fears it will be little more than a string of one-note attacks centring on Sang-hoon's adage: "The fucker who does the beating never thinks he'll get beaten up." However, despite its agressive longeurs in the first half, as it progresses, more interesting aspects emerge from the shadow of violence. After Yeon-hue comes round, she remains brazen in the face of Sang-hoon - telling him she'll report him unless he buys her a drink - and this marks the beginning of an odd-couple friendship.

It turns out Yeon-hue has more in common with Sang-hoon than either of them imagine. For while his history leads him to visit violence on others, she is a victim of domestic trauma, thanks to her unhinged father and a brother who thinks nothing of threatening to kill her for cash. Although neither is aware of the other's circumstances a kinship develops and it seems their unlikely bond may lead to redemption for Sang-hoon if tragedy doesn't step in.

Although Yang's directorial debut is overlong and unnecessarily laboured in the early section, he is genuinely bringing something fresh to the table in terms of the atmosphere he creates - stripping away the gloss associated with the likes of Kim Jee-woon - in favour of something more akin to the naturalism of Ken Loach. Yang and Kim give the emotional backdrop much-needed weight and help the film to lift itself from a run-of-the-mill gangster flick into more interesting territory that considers the state of modern Korean society, where violence, if this is to be believed, is as prevalent as rice.

Reviewed on: 30 Jul 2009
Share this with others on...
Breathless packshot
Can a schoolgirl offer salvation to a Korean gangster?
Amazon link

Director: Lee Hwan, Yang Ik-June, Kim Kkobbi

Writer: Yang Ik-June

Starring: Yang Ik-June, Jeong Man-shik, Kim Gol-bi

Year: 2009

Runtime: 130 minutes

Country: South Korea

Search database:

If you like this, try:

Nil By Mouth
Poor Cow