The first movie I saw in this year’s 2011 Cinemanila International Film Festival was “Breathless” by Yang Ik-Joon. It’s been a couple of days since I saw this but its powerful imagery and message still resonates until now. Its effect is so strong that it took me awhile to compose myself and write down what I think about the movie.

“Breathless” begins by introducing us to Sang-Hoon (played by Yang Ik-Joon), a low-life gangster who beats up people to earn a living. But despite his tough exterior and constant swearing, Sang-Hoon is a troubled soul. His anger seethes to the point that he beats up even the juniors in his gang and lashes out even at his friends and family. This is because he harbors an intense hatred for his abusive wife-beating father.

Sang-Hoon continues on this path of rage until the day he meets the high-school student Yeon-Hee (Kkobi Kim). Yeon-Hee is also a broken spirit who has problems with her crazy father and mischievous brother. But unlike Sang-Hoon, Yeon-Hee’s expression of anger and violence is more inward and self-suffering. Without realizing how alike they are, the two form an unlikely friendship that slowly help them and the people around them break free from the cycle of violence that has engulfed their lives.

What I love most about “Breathless” is the way it evokes a roller-coaster of emotions in you. Throughout the whole movie, there’s a constant push and pull of loving or hating the different characters. With its focus on violence, the movie can be a little too much for those who cannot bear to hear swearing in practically most of the dialogue. But amidst all the swearing and violence, the director managed to keep the movie’s heart.

This is mainly due to the stellar performance of the cast. Director Yang Ik-Joon plays a brilliant Sang-Hoon. He has this way of making his character so natural and grounded – it feels like like you can just bump into him in the streets of Seoul. It is also quite tricky to create empathy for a character trapped by his own demons, but the Sang-Hoon managed to create this child-like vulnerability palpable underneath all that macho bravado.

Kkobi Kim was also terrific in her portrayal of Yeon-Hee. It’s actually quite amazing since she herself admitted (during the Q&A after the movie’s screening in Cinemanila) that she disagreed with the perspective of the director regarding violence since she has never experienced it in Korea before. So it was quite a challenge for her to be a character who swears and feels like hell all the time. But watching the movie, one does not feel any sense of hesitation or acting in Yeon-Hee’s character. She feels like a true person – a hurt soul who has problems that prevent her from just being herself.

With this being the personal project of the director, its quite amazing to watch how he has managed to craft such a strong movie using inspiration from personal and second-hand experiences. To watch him as Sang-Hoon is incredible enough, but to know that he also wrote the screenplay and directed the movie – one can’t helped but be awed. For Director Yang manages to keep the film grounded in reality. There are no over the top camera techniques, no flowery dialogue, and no beauty product lighting. So you never feel like watching characters in a movie. Rather, you feel like you are seeing the lives of people unfold before you. This is why it will surely leave you breathless. Or perhaps gasping for more.

Thanks to  for the video.

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