Breathless (똥파리) is Yang Ik-june’s debut feature, in which he is also lead actor, and the film has deservedly won numerous awards. As the film opens, a man is beating up his girlfriend in the street. To the rescue comes Sang-hoon, played by Yang, who subdues the offender only to turn to the woman and physically berate her for meekly accepting such punishment. And, momentarily distracted, he then gets clobbered from behind by the assailant he thought he had written off.
The opening scene captures the essence of the film well. At its root is the destructive nature of family violence, and the way it shapes peoples lives and influences them long after they have left the family nest. The two main characters in the film come from such abusive backgrounds, and much of the film is about their attempt to escape through building relationships with those around them. Sang-hoon finds domestic violence abhorrent, but the only way he can show this abhorrence is with more violence.
Sang-hoon’s complex character has much of Yang Ik-june in him. Yang had a similar troubled background: “I have a lot of anger towards my family” he confessed at the Q&A after the screening, and exploring this anger through Sang-hoon’s character had a cathartic effect. The film has moments of extreme violence and extreme tenderness. We sense that redemption, and breaking out of the destructive cycle, is possible, though maybe not achievable for everyone.
As we head towards the conclusion of the film, and as the relationship between Sang-hoon and Yeon-hee (Kim Kkot-bi) blossoms, we sense that things might end up happily. But this is a Korean film, of course, so happy endings are not assured. Will Yang decide to choose the Hollywood cliché and have everyone living happily ever after, or will he follow a more conventional Korean approach and raise hopes only to dash them? An audience member in fact asked Yang why he chose to kill off his lead character. For Yang, killing Sang-hoon was like leaving his past behind him. And nevertheless, the remaining characters seem to be given the chance to create their lives afresh.