"Breathless": Fool and Cool

in 38th Rotterdam International Film Festival

by Firat Yücel

The genius of Breathless (Ddongpari), by director Yang-Ik Juni, lies in its ability to transform a rather melodramatic and over-calculated narrative into a study of the causes and consequences of violence with masterly acted scenes which do not seem calculated at all. The naturalism and ambiguity of Breathless’ vivid everyday life sequences contradict with its calculated and tidy storyline, as if the movie is aware of its own reductionist “cause and effect” equations. There lies the great dilemma but also the great beauty and profundity of Breathless: it builds a huge web of causes and effects, yet at the same time it never allows you to think just in terms of causality. It gives you an easy formulation on the causes of violence, and it gradually deprives you of this formulation with every passing second. For most of the movie, one has to see “the big picture” to understand its depth; with Breathless it’s rather the opposite: you have to forget about the big picture, and reckon its details. You have to let the subtleties rule over the mathematics of the narrative. At times it feels like watching an Old Boy-like revenge movie narrated with the more naturalistic sensibility of Oasis. Thinking in a Korean cinema context, Breathless stands in between these two films; borrowing the best qualities of them and blending them together to create a new and fresh sensibility.

In order to make the viewer identify with the ‘bad guy’, the movie needs to take the risk of conveying an over-naive, over-romantic and even unrealistic feeling, since every move of the movie may feel like a dishonest strategy to make the viewer sympathize with him/her. It either has to present its anti-hero sympathetic in certain ways or make him/her seem cool and charismatic. In the Coppola-Scorsese-Mann tradition of gangster movies, the mechanics of identification depend on the bad guys’ coolness. The viewer unconsciously adores the gangsters’ cold-blooded techniques and skills; feeling like a ‘wanna-be gangster’. And in the Hollywood tradition, it is rather the sympathetic qualities that makes the gangster identifiable; the viewer somehow knows that actually the gangster is ‘good hearted’, and waits for that moment in which he reveals the good in him/her. At first glance Breathless also feels as if it will employ the same identification mechanisms. Yet it gradually breaks away from both traditions. Even the first scene says a lot about this: A man is beating a woman. Then another man comes along (main character) and beats the beater. At that point the viewer may think like “OK, this is the hero”. Yet the scene continues and the man who beats the beater starts to beat the woman, blaming her for not fighting back. From a certain perspective this attitude of him may also be called heroic, cool or even wise. But it surely is violent, vulgar and even ridiculous. The viewer does not know if she/he is to laugh or get angry, to adore the guy or to degrade him.

In fact in Breathless there is a very thin line between coolness and foolishness. For most of the time, one would not even know if some character is cool or merely an idiot. That’s what makes it unique in terms of identification strategies. Breathless is not concerned with viewers who would humiliate its characters. It does not try to make its characters appealing by concealing their stupidity. That is to say, it does not avoid absurd moments to make itself more romantic. There’s even a hint of slapstick in certain scenes that reflect the dialogues between the main character and his sister’s son.

Humiliation, coolness, stupidity, charisma, social status, prestige, violence for revenge, violence for redemption… All these constantly exchange places throughout the movie. In fact it’s hard to imagine a more playful film about the interchangeability of these values and emotions, which also feels more naturalistic at the same time. That is both the reason why the film eventually doesn’t feel calculated and why its strategies to make the viewer to identify with the anti-hero doesn’t feel too far-fetched.