We talk exclusively to Yang Ik-June about his fantastic debut feature Breathless…
If you’ve already seen Breathless, then the film’s lead actor (and writer, director and editor) Yang Ik-June wouldn’t be quite what you’d expect. Of course, it’s not as if you’d be expecting that intimidating presence, ready to spurt into a violent and angry outburst at the drop of a hat, but in person he’s charming, fun, hip and very laid back. He later tells me the girls always tell him how much cuter he is in real life.
He has much better dress sense too. None of those terrible, 90s style chavvy, unfashionable shirts on him today.
Even if it hadn’t been his directorial debut, Breathless is an impressive feature. Applauded throughout the world, winning awards from festivals from Rotterdam to Singapore – most recently picking up the Grand Prize and the Audience Award at the tenth annual Tokyo Filmex – it’s an uncompromising study of a two-bit gangsters life and domestic violence in working class Korea, about a hired thug who begins an unlikely friendship with an equally damaged schoolgirl. On paper it shouldn’t work, but on screen the film reaches an unexpected understanding of its characters and their motivations, reminiscent of films like Nil By Mouth and more recently the work of Andrea Arnold, including her Cannes Jury prize winner Fish Tank.
Most impressively, despite Yang Ik-June’s lead character of debt collector Sang-hoon being almost entirely devoid of any redemptive qualities, he ultimately wins over audiences without apologetically architecting your sympathies. Not bad for an actor whose roles have previously rarely made it into the first five names on a cast list.
‘Well, I made it just for you and so you’d be surprised’, he jokes.
Really, you shouldn’t have gone to this much trouble for me? But really, what was his inspiration for the film that deals so candidly with domestic violence?
‘Actually there wasn’t any! There was no message that I intended to deliver. It was only after the film had been written and made that I understood what it was trying to say. In that sense I’m just another member of the audience.’
Did he enjoy playing a character who is, at least until we find about more about him much later in the film, quite unsympathetic?
‘I love playing such emotionally strong and dominant characters. It’s actually ironic, because I wanted to show just how bad these people are, but actually it’s when I play roles like this that I enjoy it the most. In the scenes where my character gets violent and angry, I actually feel a sense of catharticism, of synergy with the part I’m playing and getting that burst of energy out.’
‘You know in some of those scenes where I’m so, argh!’ he screams loudly, ‘it was only because I couldn’t contain all those emotions, it was like I was screaming and letting it out. It was just a natural process for me. And like you said, he’s a very unsympathetic character. Korean audiences reacted in the same way. You watch the movie in the first half and he’s just such a pathetic character, you don’t feel any identification with him, he’s just aggressive.’
‘It’s only as the movie progresses you see that, although he does have this violent side, he’s not a bad person fundamentally, and you start to have more compassion towards him, By the end you want to care for him even. He’s quite a vulnerable and weak character. And I find that female audiences felt that a lot. On my movie homepage there was like 30 or so women who said “I’m completely head over heals in love with you, marry me, marry me”.’
‘When I meet some of those women at film festivals they’re always quite hesitant at initially to approach me. Then they say, “Oh my god, you’re much cuter than I thought you would be from the film”. Then it’s “Come on, swear to me, swear to me”.’ (His character swears almost non-stop through the film.) ‘They like that side of me.’ So of course he obliges!
The film itself is so wonderfully understated in its direction; the tone is naturalistic using handheld camera, and very, very little music. Was that deliberate?
‘I don’t know,’ he begins in English, ‘with regards to the music, I don’t know why I ended up using so little. In fact I asked a friend of mine, who happens to be in an indie band of sorts, to write me some music for the film. He came back with some 30 odd pieces and said, “I’m done! This is as much as I can make, take your pick”. From that I took a few songs, trying to pick the most unusual, the ones that didn’t sound like something you’d listen to commercially. I think they work well, because although they sound a little strange and weird when you first listen to them, the more you hear them the more familiar they become and the more you like them.’
‘As for the use of handheld camera, I think that comes from me having been an actor for the last 10 years. I’m sure there are plenty of elements that are important to a great movie, but for me it’s the actors, they are pivotal and I guess I wanted to pour into that. I just wanted to follow them, get up close to their emotions and facial expressions, stare right into their soul even.’
In fact he wanted to get a little too close. Until the filming director told him it would be far too much on screen, too uncomfortable and awkward to watch. He’d intended there to be far more of those kinds of shots on screen.
‘For me the actors emotion is the most important thing, and that’s what I wanted to capture. There’s an American actor/director who has a very similar style, John Cassavetes, so I think it must be something to do with being an actor.’
So had any other actors turned directors influenced him to make leap himself?
‘Not directly, no. It was more a case of when I was writing the script that I didn’t have any other actor in mind to play the role. And it wasn’t a case of his own acting ambitions either – I just felt it had to be me to portray those emotions.’
Similarly, he ended up editing the film, and even working on the poster with a friend.
‘I think I just wanted to pour as much of myself and my feelings as I could into the film as possible, and that’s why I took all these different roles.’
That didn’t stop him from searching online for actors like him who had turned director, out of curiosity to see what had come before, and found actors who, if they didn’t inspire him directly, he certainly admires. Takeshi Kitano, Clint Eastwood and Vincent Gallo.
‘Kitano I find really interesting because he’s so minimal. I’m an actor who likes to scrunch up my face to portray my feelings, but he is so calm in his facial expressions.’ (He drops into a flawless impression of Kitano, doing little more than raising one eyebrow.) He can get a sense of his feelings and emotions without these sort of violent outbursts and exaggerated facial. Clint Eastwood, I love the fact that he deals with human beings as his themes. I just love that. And Vincent Gallo, well, I just find him cute.’
Interestingly, all of these directors deal with unpleasant and often violent themes in their work. Does he think there’s anything in that? Could it be they wouldn’t ask someone to play a role they’re not willing to play themselves?
‘I don’t think it’s because they don’t want someone else to do it, like they wouldn’t trust another actor to do it. It’s more that it just feels right for them to play that role. There’s no ambition for them to have the “best role”. It’s just because, like in my case, with their love for their own film it just comes naturally.’
So how did he find his cast?
‘Let me say first, for me it’s not about getting the best technician or the best possible actor, or anything like that. But it has to be somebody who can fit into the setting comfortably. Someone who can have a good laugh and enjoy themselves, and somebody who suits my style.’
‘The lead actress Kim Kot-Bi, who plays the schoolgirl Yeon-Hue, I first saw her in a short film and I just leapt up! I was astounded by her ability to play emotions. Initially she was up for another role in the film, and there was another woman to play the lead, but things didn’t work out so I used Kim Kot-Bi instead, and she did excellently.’
‘Yeong-Jae, the part of the younger brother was supposed to be played by another actor, but again that didn’t turn out. So Lee Hwan, who had read the script from somewhere (!) came and found me and said he would really love to play this role. Eventually I gave in and said okay, you can play it.’
‘The father figures on both sides were difficult people to get. It was only in the middle of the film that I got conformation that they would be able to do it. And for the role of Sang-hoon’s sister, she was someone I knew from before. As was Man-shik Jeong, cast in the role of Man-Sik, the boss of the debt collectors company. He was a guy I knew and hung around with. I always had them in mind. So it was generally people I knew and people that I felt I could work with.’
‘I don’t believe that the technically trained and experienced actors were superior to any of the other actors in the film. It was more a case that our passion and our trust in each other could overcome those sort of technicalities and deficiencies that they might have in comparison to other actors and I do feel that the film has shown that.’
Amazingly, other than the main cast, all the extras seen in one or two scenes were made up from the filming staff and crew.
‘You know in movies when you see extras who are really obviously from the crew, awkward and conspicuous. My guys were nothing like that. I think everyone in my filming crew must be a born actor, everyone was so great and so natural!’
As for the future, does Yang see himself as a director now?
‘By no means, I don’t feel any sort of restrictions on my career. I’m just going to follow wherever my heart goes. My latest work has been as an actor, I’ve just finished one movie with another to start next month.’
But who knows what the future holds? One thing’s for certain, Yang Ik-June is certainly a talent to look out for.
Breathless is released on a special two-disc collectors edition DVD by Terracotta Distribution on 22 March.
Thanks to Yang Ik-June for his time, the guys from Terracotta and The Associates for setting up the interview.