Thursday, July 02, 2009

NYAFF, Part 3: Breathless

The two highlights of the 2009 New York Asian Film Festival (so far), have been Yang Ik-June's feel-bad domestic violence yarn Breathless (2009) and Lee Kyeong-Mi's obsessive farce Crush and Blush (2008) [more on the latter later]. Both are disturbing psychological freak-outs from South Korea, with the former opting for tragedy, the latter comedy.

Breathless is very nearly a one-man show. Yang Ik-June wrote it, stars in it, and co-directed the film with Lee Hwan. According to the NYAFF programmers, he sold his house and maxed out his credit cards to get this outrageously vulgar film made. It's nothing if not a passion project. The language is what immediately registers (and I can only imagine the difficulties for the translator), a peppery melange of "cunts", "bitches", and "motherfuckers". They're used as punctuations, terms of endearment, and imminent threats. Yang is the primary linguist here as Song-Hoon, a morose shakedown artist working for a fatherly moon-faced loan shark.

Song-Hoon's violence emerges immediately in the opening scene, as he and his team of thugs break up a student protest. His rage is uncontrollable, as he ends up debilitating anything in his way, even his fellow baton-wielding brothers. He is a savage, and early on Yang plays these bestial traits for laughs, pivoting his uncouth attitude around the uncomprehending locals around him. The uneasy tone is established early on, as he saunters down an alleyway, and spits over his shoulder. The spittle lands on a high-school girl, Yeon-Hee (a devilish Kim Gol-Bi), who tuns out to be just as nihilistic as he is. They exchange blows, and a tentative truce is built up for the rest of the film's running time.

As their backstories are filled in (abusive and deceased parents, intense emotional scarring), the tone tints darker and darker. The plot follows a fairly traditional arc, as Sang-Hoon seeks closure for his bereft youth and attempts to master his rage to fit into (however uncomfortably) the wider society. These are beats hit by every rebellious teen film ever made, but Breathless enlivens them with its mordant wit, fearless performances, and the ragged intensity of its HD compositions.

The final screening of Breathless takes place today, July 2nd, at 2PM at the IFC Center.

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