Just as impressive, “Breathless” marks the debut for Ik-jun Yang who takes the role of director, screen writer, and main actor for the film. The film isn’t a perfect film, it runs longer than what seems necessary & the story is conventional (down to its cliché “Carlito’s Way” like resolution), but in terms of sheer impact the film is extraordinary.
In “Breathless,” Sang-hun (Ik-jun Yang) works as a low-level gangster collecting money for his longtime loan shark friend. Sang-hun seethes with rage due to his troubled childhood and abusive father. At any moment, Sang-hun can lash out at relatives, friends, & strangers with the only way he knows how to solve problems: savage violence.
One day, Sang-hun walks along a residential road and spits on the sidewalk. He unintentionally hits a brash young high school student named Yeon-hee (Kkot-bi Kim). When Yeon-hee tells Sang-hun to clean up his mess, he knocks her out with a punch to the face. Sang-hun then sits across from her until she regains consciousness. He offers to buy the girl a beer and the beginnings of an unusual friendship occurs.
What you’re first likely to notice with “Breathless” is the unflinching violence that is shown onscreen. Ik-jun Yang opts for realism in a world were he may be intimately familiar with and, because of this, doesn’t try to sugar coat it with any romantic illusions of a mobster’s life. You’ll also hear way more Korean curse words than in any other film. Regardless of whether you have ever heard the Korean language spoken before, you’ll pick up on various ways to utter the word “Shibal.” If all this nihilism was just for the sake of realism than “Breathless” would probably be no better or worse than a porn film, but the lifelike characters and the dynamic relationships that sprouts out from all the violence works as the lifeline for the film.
The relationship between Sang-hun and Yeon-hee is something to watch as both performers excel in their portrayals. Ik-jun Yang as Sang-hun walks the streets as a raging beast and to his credit does wonders to bring out the frailty of his wounded soul. Kkot-bi Kim, who plays the brash young high school girl, has the daunting task to portray a young girl with similar problems as Sang-hun and she is able to do so convincingly. With her long straight bangs hanging over her expressive wide eyes, you can’t help to think of a young Du-na Bae when watching Kkot-bi Kim perform.
Where “Breathless” isn’t nearly as successful is in resolving its story. The screenplay is scorching for the first 90 minutes or so, but then ties all its loose ends in a drawn-out, clumsy manner. Perhaps there should be a rule that all first time Korean indie film directors shouldn’t make a film longer than 90 minutes (this year’s other standout Korean indie film “Daytime Drinking” suffers from the same problem). Nevertheless, if you don’t mind violent movies, “Breathless” is a film you should seek out. Its certainly the best Korean gangster film I have seen in a long, long time.