We begin with a familiar movie scene: A bully berates and strikes his girlfriend in the middle of a crowded street. A bigger, meaner man intrudes - hey, pick on someone your own size. Soon the two men are fighting. Our Bad Samaritan luxuriates in the beating he lays on the bully, then crouches, grimacing, to examine the crying girlfriend.
Just like Russell Crowe's character, Bud White, saving a lipstick-smeared damsel in distress in L.A. Confidential.
Except that in South Korean actor-director Yang lk-june's film Breathless, our hero then slaps the blubbering victim. "Why do you just take it?" he asks, spitting the words. And then he slaps her again.
Why indeed? Yang's film has a ready answer: Because her mother took it, just as his father dished it out. The rescuer, Sang-hoon, is a hulking debt collector whose preferred payment is a pound of flesh. A flashback reveals why: His father killed his mother and sister when he was a mute, frightened child.
Sang-hoon (Yang) wants revenge on the world by hurting everyone as much as he hurts. Violence is his only means of expression. When he sees a girl he likes, a student truant, Yeon-hee (Kim Kkobbi), he spits on her and knocks her out, then waits until she wakes to offer her a beer.
Brutal as a fist in the face, Breathless is both an explicit critique of South Korean gender politics and a stylish genre exercise. Filmmaker Yang is sometimes at cross-purposes here: It's hard to argue violence against women is not cool when you're sculpting a sympathetic portrait of a calm, cool killing machine.
And Breathless is overemphatic, endlessly repeating its brutal message, like a carpenter hammering a nail long after it has disappeared into the board.
Still, there is much to admire here: As an actor, Yang, who looks to be about 30 years old, has the sullen grace of a young Lee Marvin. As a director, he's coaxed restrained, credible portraits out of all his characters, from a closeted gay henchman boss to a moon-faced, four-year-old boy who falls under Sang-hoon's spell.
And there are a few tender scenes that suggest the rookie filmmaker is capable of great range, especially a lovely interlude in which Sang-hoon, Yeon-hee and the little boy disappear into the crowded city, playing at being a family, that would seem to be inspired by the James Dean-Natalie Wood-Sal Mineo idyll in an abandoned house at the end of Rebel Without a Cause.
Although his first film is only a partial success, Yang Ik-june is a filmmaker worth watching for.
- Written and directed by Yang lk-june
- Starring Yang Ik-june, Kim Kkobbi and Lee Hwan
- Classification: 18A
Special to The Globe and Mail