"Hey! Sort this out before you go!"      

Sang-hoon (Yang Ik-june) is not a man who could be described as cultured. With an ingrained penchant for violence he has found almost a calling in his job working as a hired thug for a debt collection company, required to inflict pain on those who owe money to his boss but cannot pay. Even when he is not working, he regularly lashes out with both his fists and his tongue, giving physical and verbal abuse - often at the same time - to those who have the audacity (from his point of view) to say or do anything with which he doesn't agree. In fact, virtually the only time Sang-hoon doesn't swear or punch anyone is when he's too busy spitting in the street, and even that leads to an altercation with schoolgirl Yeon-hee (Kim Kkobbi, aka Kim Kkot-bi), when he inadvertently spits on her as he is passing by. Being a girl who stands up for herself, Yeon-hee calls him on the act and ends up knocked out on the ground for her trouble. However, her feisty nature refuses to let Sang-hoon get away with what he's done and, once she recovers, demands recompense, his pager number (he doesn't even have a mobile phone) and a promise that he will make amends. He grudgingly agrees (being somewhat impressed by the nerve of the girl) and slowly they begin to warm to each other...

Sang-hoon and Yeon-hee are both from troubled backgrounds, with violence infecting and affecting their daily lives and, as such, their friendship can be seen as a bonding of kindred spirits:
As a child, Sang-hoon witnessed the death of his mother and sister (caused by his father) and over the ensuing years the resultant emotional and psychological scars have blocked almost everything but hate from his heart. His father, having returned home after serving 15 years in prison, is a constant reminder of everything Sang-hoon despises and even though those around him attempt to convince him to give his father (now a shattered, broken man) some attention and care, Sang-hoon cannot forgive him and instead chooses to focus his attention on inflicting pain on the man and watching him suffer. In fact, Sang-hoon’s only positive relationship (until he meets Yeon-hee) is with his step-sister’s son, who is himself an introverted and troubled child, and even though Sang-hoon’s step-sister attempts to make numerous in-roads to bring Sang-hoon closer, he consistently goes out of his way to keep her at arms’ length.
Similarly Yeon-hee has been without her mother since her death, when Yeon-hee was still just a child. Her father is a crippled Vietnam veteran, with an (unnamed) disease, who has subconsciously convinced his unstable mind that his wife isn't dead and that she has, instead, run off with another man. Even Yeon-hee's brother Yeong-jae (Lee Hwan), a unemployed high school drop-out, is a damaged individual who is progressively becoming more violent as each day passes - primarily focusing his bullying on Yeon-hee and demanding money from her, on almost a daily basis. Though she detests her situation, Yeon-hee has had little option, since her mother's death, but to become the mother figure of her household and take care of the family who treat her as nothing more than a slave, but her growing friendship with Sang-hoon begins to spark a glimmer of hope that there may be a better future awaiting her, and the time that she and Sang-hoon spend together quickly becomes a means for both of them to gain temporary respite from the violence surrounding them, while waiting for that better life - which they both ache for - to unfold.
Sadly, neither Sang-hoon nor Yeon-hee are aware that their pasts are already linked by violent events and that those events are set to echo into both their futures to cataclysmic effect.

Themes involving familial dysfunction and/or violence are often depicted in South Korean cinema but seldom are they shown to go hand in hand to the extent seen in Breathless, and even films which do address the combination of these issues tend to discuss them only with regard to how they affect the present, rarely showing the ever-increasing vicious circles - often spanning generations - which can result. In a historically patriarchal society, such as Korea, the fact that the depiction of the violence surrounding all of the characters in Breathless is as a result of masculine actions (from the past through to the present and, inevitably, set to continue into the future), combined with a resultant lack of feminine familial influences, is both a bold and controversial statement which holds true in any society but Breathless (thankfully) avoids any of the contrived upbeat resolutions or saccharin-coated happy endings which tend to plague the mainstream films of many other countries.

Breathless doesn't preach its themes or give overt answers to the subjects discussed but those answers are clearly on view within the sub-text of the film and the causes are, plainly, impossible to deny. Violence breeds violence which, once started, can snowball, engulfing and destroying the lives of all those who come into contact with it.

Direction, Cast & Crew:

Yang Ik-june's work in Breathless (as writer, director, lead actor and producer) is breath-taking. Though he is not an experienced director he has learnt his craft expertly from his years working on films in various roles and in various positions. His direction is low-key enough to allow his astounding performance to take centre stage but still involved enough to drive the plot, beginning from an almost first-person perspective and slowly moving to the third-person as Yeon-hee's story begins to play a bigger part within the story. It is obvious that Breathless is a project which is extremely important to him, and very close to his heart, and that shows from the opening scene to the last.
The film is unashamedly low budget but that actually works in its favour, giving proceedings a downbeat feeling (perfectly suited for characters whose lives are themselves downbeat) but, that said, the constraints of the budget never cause any visual or aural issues – in fact the only scenes which look noticeably low budget are the scenes of Yeon-hee and Sang-hoon enjoying themselves (often also featuring Sang-hoon's nephew) and one can't help but feel that they are deliberately so - their importance standing out more as a result. These scenes are also largely bereft of any sound, save a single guitar, and it could be said that this is a personification of Sang-hoon himself: When he is with the people he has grown to care for he is, at least partly, at peace (and his inner voice silenced) and the swearing, shouting and spitting that occurs at other times only comes as a result of having something negative or violent to react against. Violence is loud and abrasive, love is harmonious and quiet, if you like.

The roles of Sang-hoon (Jang Ik-june), Yeon-hee (Kim Kkobbi), Yeon-hee's brother Yeong-jae (Lee Hwan) and Sang-hoon's nephew are by far the largest and most important within Breathless. Each of their performances is exemplary and it would be next to impossible to single one out as being better than the rest. Each of the main portrayals perfectly captures the relevant character (which are all universally well drawn) and brings out a realism and believability that gives complete justice to this remarkable film. With regard to the two main characters:
Kim Kkobbi's impassioned portrayal of Yeon-hee effortlessly conveys her character's strength and vulnerability with an understated style and, from the very moment that she awakens from having been knocked out by Sang-hoon, her polished performance ensures that viewers are firmly on her side throughout the course of the film.
Jang Ik-june’s success at making the audience care about Sang-hoon is also quite an achievement, considering his temper and violent outbursts, and the characterization produced perfectly compliments that provided by Kim Kkobbi.
The lesser character portrayals, though many are small or passing, are also easily worthy of praise.


Breathless is a visceral discussion of the legacy which violence can create and the ease with which it can span generations, infecting everything and everyone in its path. An outstanding film which truly packs a punch, Breathless will take your breath away.

Actors: Jang Ik-june, Kim Kkobbi, Lee Hwan, Jeong Man-shik

Director: Jang Ik-june


Breathless will be released on DVD in the on March 22nd by TerraCotta Distribution.

The TerraCotta UK DVD release of Breathless is presented as a 2-disc Collectors Edition, utterly packed with extras, in deluxe packaging and containing a multi-lingual booklet (in both Korean and English).
The quality of this release is exemplary and reminiscent of the stunning first-pressing Region 3 releases that are so famous for their quality.
I, for one, wish that all Region 2 DVD releases could be as good as this - a must-have on all levels.

DVD Extra Details:

Packed with special features including the directors own video cam footage from the Rotterdam International Film Festival, and a Q&A at London Korean Film Festival with Yang Ik-june, and specially written sleeve-notes from the director and actress Kim Kkobbi, this truly is a collectable.

The screening DVD used for this review was provided courtesy of TerraCotta Distribution (www.terracottadistribution.com)
and The Associates (www.the-associates.co.uk)

All images © TerraCotta Distribution
Review © Paul Quinn