March 24, 2011 § Leave a Comment
Here is an unpublished film review I wrote last year during my internship at Sight & Sound. I received very positive feedback from the editors and as a result my subsequent commissions were published. Used to be on my previous blog, but since this one doesn’t exist anymore, I thought I’ll do a bit of recycling today…
Arguably, extreme violence – or ultra-violence as Burguess would put it – has been one the most prominent traits of Korean cinema in the last decade, to the point that for many mainstream cinemagoers, it came to define it. The worldwide success and broad critical acclaim of Park Chan-wook revenge flicks, filled with gore and stylised perversity overshadowed the diversity of one of the most productive and inventive national film industries to create a stereotypical sub-genre: the extreme Korean thriller. Thematically, Breathless (2009) does not seem to disappoint the viewer’s expectation: from the opening frame to the last scene, the film is relentlessly violent – but its depiction and meaning could not be more remote to Park Chan-wook’s universe. Yang-Ik Jook, the director who also displays an impressive intensity in the leading role of his first feature, opts for a naturalistic approach to filming – all close-ups, simple shots and handheld camera – light years from the complicated, westernised, post-Fight Club aesthetic of Park’s vengeance trilogy. The epitome of Park Chan-Wook’s visual style when dealing with violence can be found in Old Boy, with the infamous brawl in the jail corridor, where the lone hero overcomes one by one all his attackers in a virtuoso tracking-shot directly inspired by the beat-‘em-up video games. Violence here is unreal: “just fun” – Tarantino-esque. In contrast, Sang-hoon, the main protagonist of Breathless, a debt collector spending his days beating to a pulp every single human in sight, doesn’t even know what a Playstation is (which he actually calls a “Play-shit”), until he agrees to buy one to his nephew, in a rare display of kindness. In a film saturated with symbols and totemic items (western child toys, knifes, phones, hammers), the introduction of the Playstation can be read as a departure from this insensitive, immature and virtual approach to the issue that is violence; and more specifically in Breatless’ case, domestic violence.
A moral tale about domestic violence and its consequences, the film reproduces the cyclical nature of child abuse. The bullied child becomes the bully; the victimised mother produces a traumatised daughter, a beating follows another beating and so on. This makes the film structurally repetitive and quite predictable, but remarkably, it also gives a forceful depth to the directors’ hard-hitting argument about the responsibility that victims have in perpetuating the cycle originated by their tormentors.
After an uncompromising first hour letting the viewer astonished and weary of Yang-Ik Joon shock and awe approach, the director suddenly introduces a sentimental edge to Breathless with an unexpected touching montage of the two main characters (the thug and the high school girl) taking the gangster’s nephew to the fair, where he can, at last, be a child again. This passage, with its cheesy oriental music, is very reminiscent of Takeshi’s Kitano similarly tender moments in his romantic gangster chronicles. This is also the only time, along with another pivotal twist taking place later on in the film (the father’s suicide attempt), that Yang-Ik Joon uses mood music – the rest of the soundtrack containing only diegetic sounds of incessant kicking, punching, slapping and screaming noises, which provide, like a percussion set, the internal rhythm of the film.
Littered with more swear words than a vintage Scorsese epic, Breathless, whose original title Ddjongpari could be translated “fly-shit”, is also a study of the social alienation that comes with the lack of education that often originates in the trauma of child abuse: its main characters don’t have the words to express their frustrations but only their fists and can only mimic what they have witnessed. Even marks of affections are sent through play-fighting (Sang-Hoon and his nephew) or verbal abuse (Sang-Hoon and the adolescent girl he calls “crazy bitch”). School education is regarded as important by all characters (the wannabe gangsters are always asked if they graduated from high-school by the mob boss) but remains a vacuous, distant, superficial dream, alien to their world of poverty and violence.
The ending works superbly in a series of symmetrical narrative motifs, leaving room for hope as seen in the concluding flash-forward. The transformation of Sang-hoon is brutally quick, but remains believable. A martyr of child abuse, his will to change his ways and break the cycle will eventually kill him but save his family. It is a powerful conclusion to an overly brutal film that leave bruises like a punch in the face, but also handles its gentle moments with a disarming sincerity.