Thursday, July 9, 2009

A History of Violence

Breathless (Ddongpari). 2008. Produced, written and directed by Yang Ik-june. Cinematography by Yun Jong-ho. Edited by Lee Yeong-jeon. Music by The Invisible Fish. Production design by Hon Zi.

Cast: Yang Ik-june (Sang-hoon), Kim Kkot-bi (Yeon-hee), Jeong Man-shik (Man-shik), Lee Hwan (Yeong-jae), Park Jeong-soon (Seung-cheol), Lee Seung-yeon (Hyeon-seo), Kim Hee-soo (Hyeong-in), Choi Yong-min (Hyeong-seok), Yoon Seung-hoon (Hwan-gyu), Lee Jin-sook (Sang-hoon's mother), Kil Hae-yeon (Yeon-hee's mother).

Yang Ik-june’s astonishing debut film Breathless is an indelibly potent depiction of the daisy chain of domestic violence and how it swallows up everyone in its wake, told through the stories of two people whose lives and psyches have been scarred by the violence in their homes. The film’s worldview is neatly encapsulated in the pre-credits opener: a man punches and kicks a screaming woman out on the street in front of a handful of shocked observers, who nevertheless do not attempt to intervene. Another man stalks into the scene, breaking up the fight by beating up this aggressor. After he is done, he squats in front of the woman, and instead of comforting her or expressing his sympathies, spits in her face, and begins smacking her. “Why do you just take it?” he asks her repeatedly between slaps. He then stops to smoke a cigarette … and falls out of the frame as he is struck by a blow from someone off-screen. Cue title. This audacious start to an even more audacious film lets us know exactly what we are in for: an extremely violent and incredibly profane film (there are more verbal obscenities per minute than any routine Andrew Dice Clay ever dreamt up; Breathless is a virtual language manual of Korean cuss-words) that is as raw and uncompromising as art gets.

That first scene is our introduction to Sang-hoon (Yang Ik-june), a petty gangster who works as the main muscle and debt enforcer for his partner, loan shark Man-shik (Jeong Man-shik). Sang-hoon is the dictionary definition of a short fuse, reveling in his job stomping down deadbeat borrowers, demolishing outdoor food stalls, and breaking up student demonstrations. Sang-hoon’s unrelenting rage against the world expresses itself in his endless lashing out against any and all of his perceived enemies, and being around him becomes an occupational hazard for the other gang members who work under him, as he often fails to differentiate between his own men and those who he has been sent to beat up. The reasons behind Sang-hoon’s anger are shown through brief flashback scenes from his childhood, in which we learn that his family existed under the thrall of their abusive father Seung-cheol (Park Jeong-soon), who beat their mother regularly in front of the children. One of his violent episodes led to the deaths of both Sang-hoon’s mother and sister, for which Seung-cheol spent fifteen years in jail. Sang-hoon’s father now lives alone in a small apartment, supported largely by Man-shik, who feels sorry for the old man, and being an orphan, wishes he had a father. Sang-hoon bitterly mocks Man-shik for his largesse, and continues to make his father pay for his crime by periodically storming into the apartment to beat his father whenever the rage inside him becomes too great to bear.

One day, Sang-hoon meets his match in Yeon-hee (Kim Kkot-bi), a high-school girl who confronts him with expletive-rich invective after he accidentally spits on her school uniform as he passes her by. Sang-hoon responds in his usual manner – punching her in the face and knocking her out. When Yeon-hee comes to, she continues her harangue, demanding that he make up for it. Thus begins a very combative friendship between the two. They don’t tell each other the truth about their lives, but they recognize each other as kindred spirits, and are eventually bound together by the violence that is a daily part of their lives. Yeon-hee claims to be a rich girl who hangs out with Sang-hoon out of boredom, but the truth is that she must endure a tortured home life, left after her mother’s death with a senile, violent father (Choi Yong-min) and an equally violent brother, Yeong-jae (Lee Hwan), who constantly threatens, insults, and demands money from her. Yeon-hee helps to bring out a more benevolent side to Sang-hoon, a side we also see as he becomes a father figure to his nephew Hyeong-in (Kim Hee-soo) and gives some of his earnings to Hyeong-in’s mother, Sang-hoon’s half-sister Hyeon-seo (Lee Seung-yeon). Sang-hoon and Yeon-hee are able to steal some moments of happiness while on a mall outing with Hyeong-in, or having a late-night drink. However, these brief respites are few and far between, and the violence in both of their lives escalate, especially after Yeong-jae joins Sang-hoon’s gang, Sang-hoon being unaware of who he is. Events are set into motion leading to tragic consequences.

Writer, director and star Yang Ik-june has created a nervy, brutal, yet tender and heartfelt film that crackles with invention, humor, restless – and yes, breathless, energy. It is also a deeply personal film for its creator, and while he declines in interviews to give specifics on the autobiographical elements, his total investment and symbiotic connection to this material is evident in every frame. Yang has said that he made this film as a form of therapy, to deal with the rage he has often felt in his life. To that end, he made great personal sacrifices to bring this project to fruition, borrowing from family and friends and even selling his house to raise the money to make the film. Yang aims in Breathless to give viewers as painfully visceral an experience of violence as possible. He refuses to depict this violence in the cool and stylized way it is often portrayed, especially in other Korean films dealing with gangsters. Yang shows us that violence indeed hurts, with every punch, every bat to the legs, every bottle broken over a skull, every hammer to the head. And it hurts not only the perpetrators and victims, but those forced to witness it, especially children. Yang presents it all with a mostly handheld camera, and such niceties as aesthetic framing and carefully composed mise-en-scène are clearly less important to Yang than in getting the experience of violence across in the most direct and unadorned way possible. This will prove to be too intense for some – festival screenings of this film are often met with audience walkouts. However, Breathless’ unflinching examination of this subject is the film’s most valuable asset. While the film’s domestic violence theme will resonate with audiences anywhere, it has special meaning in a Korean context, where domestic violence is as great a problem as it is rarely discussed in public. The continuing legacies of Confucianism and patriarchy all too often translate into men asserting the dictatorial control over families that they lack elsewhere. In one telling scene, Sang-hoon walks in on one of his deadbeat clients beating his wife in front of their children. As he pulls the man off his wife and begins beating the man, Sang-hoon rails against “fathers in this country” who are “all fucked up … They’re pathetic fucks, but when it comes to family, they’re Kim Il-sung.” This deeply affected audiences in Korea who saw the film at last year’s Pusan International Film Festival; Yang says many in the audience were moved to tears.

Not surprisingly for a film made by an actor, the performances in the film are uniformly impressive. Yang Ik-june embodies his character in a way that beautifully conveys both the brutality and poignancy of this “shit fly” (the literal translation of the film’s Korean title), this marginal and unsavory figure we end up at the film’s conclusion deeply caring for. Kim Kkot-bi, as Yeon-hee, is a revelation, as commanding a screen presence as Yang, and delivering a wonderfully nuanced and complex performance. Jeong Man-shik is also great, and very funny in the scenes in which he trades profane repartee with Yang. Much like the Godard classic that the English title of this film evokes, Breathless heralds the debut of a fully-formed major talent that shows the promise of greater things to come.

Breathless screened as part of the New York Asian Film Festival, where it received the jury award for Best Debut Feature.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great review!
It's good to see this film getting the attention that it seems to so richly deserve (in the blogosphere, at least). I'll have to see if I can track it down at some point. Or'll come to Seattle. One can hope.