Breathless Yang Ik-joon

When belligerent loan-shark Sang-Hoon (Yang Ik-joon) first encounters Yeon-Hue (Kim Kot-bi)—a high-school senior who looks young enough to be his daughter—it isn’t exactly a textbook example of “meet cute.” He spits on her—and then knocks her lights out. This happens shortly after the film’s opening sequence, in which he establishes himself as a reprehensible, equal-opportunity sadist with an exemplary flair for gratuitous misogyny. And while Yeon-Hue looks the part of a well-behaved Korean schoolgirl, she turns out to be no shrinking violet either. As their backstories unfold (and collide), with parallel trouble-at-home tales explicating their attitude problems, the two form a platonic bond as unlikely as it is inevitable.

We will give Yang, the film’s writer, director, and star, the benefit of the doubt by assuming his chronicle of relentless cruelty is not autobiographical. (You can’t possibly make films while sticking to such a punishing schedule of nonstop smackdowns.) The world of pain he has brought to cinematic life is as uncompromising as it is bone-chilling. What makes it indelible are the performances and, specifically, those moments in which the two leads develop their dependence on each other—hoping against hope that they can somehow sidestep what fate has in store for them.

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