If you had told me that my favorite film at this year’s Fantastic Fest would be a drama I would have called you a fool who obviously didn’t know me very well. In a festival filled with oddball comedies, foreign thrillers, Japanese Pinku sex films, and crazy horror movies, what are the odds that I would be most affected by a completely unglamorous gangster drama about the circle of familial abuse and violence? Very good apparently, as my favorite film at this year’s festival is just that… a powerful drama from South Korea called Breathless.
Sang-hoon (Ik-joon Yang) is a brutal and brutally foul-mouthed debt collector for a low-level loan business he co-founded. His day starts with a small notebook filled with names, addresses, and dollar amounts that he checks off one by one. Sounds simple, but it’s often terrifying to behold as Sang-hoon almost literally beats the money from those in debt. Mercilessly violent isn’t a mode he saves exclusively for work either, as Sang-hoon is just as liable to beat down a stranger on the street for staring at him the wrong way, and some nights find him retreating to a small apartment where he pummels the small and silent old man who resides within. Sang-hoon meets his verbal match one day when he nonchalantly spits on a passing teenage girl. Yeon-hue (Kot-bi Kim) doesn’t put up with his shit, and after a brief unconscious spell courtesy of his fist she works her way into his life first through guilt and persistence but eventually through friendship. Unbeknown to Sang-hoon, Yeon-hue endures her own violent reality at home at the hands of a father with dementia and a listless and confused brother prone to taking his frustrations out physically on his sister.
Sounds terrible doesn’t it? Bleak, depressing, and painful to watch… and yet somehow it isn’t any of those things. Sang-hoon is introduced as a completely unlikable prick and an extremely odd choice for a protagonist, but he’s also a character with a sympathetic past. We want to see him change and we get to witness the birth of his desire for the same. The bastard becomes someone you actually care about, and when paired with Yeon-hue the duo manage to fill the film with more heart than you’ve seen in any ten blockbusters. They’re an oddly engaging pair who create a friendship from tattered and confused lives. That friendship also serves as a catalyst for much of the film’s suspense as both of them seem headed towards disaster. There’s real drama where you expect melodrama and real emotion where you expect sap.
Credit for the film’s success goes mostly to Yang who not only delivers a powerhouse and heartfelt performance as the uncontrollably violent Sang-hoon but also serves as both writer and director on the film. This is Yang’s debut behind the camera, and while it suffers from one or two amateur mistakes, it’s a remarkably self-assured film. He reportedly pulled some of the events from his own childhood which sadly aren’t that uncommon in South Korea. It’s reportedly gotten much better in recent years, but in many ways it’s still a very patriarchal society where misguided corporal punishment towards wives and children takes on a definite abusive nature. The film explores the cycle of violence from those who inflict it to those who receive it and shows that often these are the same people. More importantly, we meet the indirect victims of the violence and see the reverberations that are felt by all. From the reason Sang-hoon beats the old man to the seemingly inevitable future that lays before Yeon-hue’s brother, the effects of abuse may be never-ending.
If a negative aspect of the film needs highlighting it’d have to be that the film could have used a slightly tighter hand in the editing room. At just over two hours, it comes dangerously close to overstaying it’s welcome with the audience. It’s a testament yet again to the performances though that even though the film feels too long, we never get tired of watching the characters. All of the actors do a fine job, but Kim stands out in addition to Yang. This is apparently her debut and she absolutely nails the sarcastic teenager with a hidden pain. I don’t make a habit of tearing up during movies (and I admit to it even less often), but her and Yang’s performances made these characters real enough for me to care about and powerful enough to cry over.
There were several movies at this year’s Fantastic Fest, but Breathless is the one that remains with me. I’m a sucker for redemption movies where the ‘bad guy’ truly earns not only the other characters’ sympathy and forgiveness but that of the audience as well. (And yes, I’m a sucker for the cute Asian schoolgirl too.) Sang-hoon and Yeon-hue will entertain you, make you laugh, and make you cry, and when you finish the film it’s with a mix of inevitable sadness and unstoppable hope. You will carry these people and their lives with you for a while. I can think of no higher compliment to a film and it’s characters than to still be feeling something for them weeks after the credits have rolled.
The Upside: Filled with brutal beat-downs, surprising tenderness and humor, damning social commentary, and utter heartbreak.
The Downside: This movie will never get the attention it deserves.
On the Side: Breathless won the Jury Prize for Best Film at the Fant-Asia Film Festival, and came in second for the Audience award at Fantastic Fest. That may not sound impressive, but as Tim League acknowledged that’s an incredible feat for a drama at a genre film festival.