Film Review: Breathless (Ddongpari)

   Breathless is a necessarily harsh movie which, much like Park Chan-wook’s Vengeance trilogy, shows the life-nulling effect hatred can have if it is left to fester and spawn. Snowballing vitriol can engulf one from the inside and, like an illness, this toxicity inevitably spreads like contagion if left untreated.

   Yang Ik-june's powerful debut as a director (in a film which he also acts as writer, producer and star) focuses on some of the most despicable low-lives around, his camera lingering on the lowest rungs of society - the Korean title for the feature, Ddongpari, literally translates as "shit fly"; a clear indication of the diseased, verminous individuals whom feature here. Breathless, however,  is an equally wonderful title for this movie in that, at points, the guttural brutality often feels like an assault on the senses – as we descend to the levels of animalistic debasement of the characters who populate the film, the narrative delivers blow after blow to our stomach and core, leaving us winded and staggered.

   Yang stars as Sang-hoon a street hoodlum, working for an illegal money-lending operation, who seems to operate on a constant default setting of "violent". Whether it is through attacking protestors or shooting his mouth off at whomever he feels, Sang-hoon has a constant need to release the violence from his viscera. His constant spitting seems to reiterate how much he wants to purge his body of the venom inside him. The source of his rage, it is quickly made clear, may be his father who was involved in the death of Sang-hoon's mother and the stabbing of his sister - he's now a frail, broken man and often passively accepts the brunt of his son's constant need to unleash his spleen.

    Sang-hoon's aggression doesn't particularly mark him out to be good company but, alas, he forms two rather unlikely close relationships which will ultimately change him. Aside from his young nephew, whom he adores, the bully forms a tenuous friendship with Yeon-hee (Kim Kkot-bi), a high school student he assaults in the street - when she awakes from her unconscious state she demands compensation; Sang-hoon can't help but form begrudging admiration for her gumption. Little does he appreciate, Yeon-hee is also a regular recipient of violence in her home life - her demented, Vietnam veteran father and broken brother both suffer frustrations they take out on the young girl.

    It's against this bleack, pitch black background, that seeds of hope begin to blossom - the world of Breathless is so brutal that it's impossible to not want to find a way out and it is through Sang-hoon, a despicable tyrant who is oddly the most sympathetic character on display, with whom an escape route is most plausible. An odd glimmer of humanity is trapped, drowning underneath his bile, but, unlike his boss Man-shik and the other no good gangsters, his hint of a soul may find him salvation. Can he and his unlikely new companion, the equally wounded Yeon-hee, begin to heal each others pain? Or are they trapped to repeat the circle of violence and rage ad infinitum?

   Breathless is an incredible achievement in indie film-making. The low budget, lo-fi aesthetics are suitably raw and powerfully evoke the brutish primitivism of the stunted Sang-hoon and the patriarchal society in which he flounders; it's equally grim and gripping social commentary. The grueling and gruesome displays of violence, filmed with a camera which chaotically never seems able to find its footing, never seem gratuitous but rather a necessary evil in communicating the horrors of untreated, and potentially even institutionalised, aggression. Yang Ik-june's debut,a distant cousin of Nil By Mouth, is punk cinema at its finest - a film which is likely to shock and stir even the most jaded of film-goers.
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