Breathless pulls no punches—literally. The Korean directorial debut sensation of the year, it has made its writer/director/lead actor a star in his home country and beyond. Hilarious yet brutally violent, heart-rending yet gritty, the film will shock you and move you in equal measures.
It opens with a woman being battered in public. In comes low-rent gangster/debt-collector Sang-hoon (Yang Ik-June), who proceeds to beat up the bad guy…then slaps the woman around himself. It’s an audacious and disturbing scene of black comedy, which is much more nuanced than one realizes at first glance.
Sang-Hoon isn’t a good guy by any means. He bashes people in front of their children, terrorizes the indebted for money and, overall, just lets his fists do the talking. The only time we see him soften is when he visits his sister and his nephew. Everything changes, however, when he meets Yeon-hee (Kim Kot-bi), a high-school teen. Foul-mouthed and headstrong, she is not the least bit afraid of him, even when he clobbers her. The two begin a bizarre but eventually touching friendship, not knowing that what ties them together is their history of domestic abuse and violence.
Breathless succeeds because it allows us to sympathize with its initially unlikeable protagonist—so much so that by the film’s end, tissues and handkerchiefs will be necessary. Credit for this remarkable transformation goes to the utterly mesmerizing performance of Yang Ik-June, as well as the young Kim Kot-bi, who holds her own in this tough masculine film. The amount of foul language she utters alone would have American censors reeling.
The awards do not lie—this is one of the most powerful films of the year.
– Raymond Phathanavirangoon