“Fucking bitch, you wanna die?”

A man is beating on a woman in the middle of a street. She won’t stop talking back and so he starts hitting her harder and harder. As she starts to scream out in pain as she writhes on the ground our hero, Sang-Hoon, come walking up and beats her assailant in the head with two florescent lights. As the man falls to the ground Sang-Hoon starts kicking him in the stomach and face. Though he’s clearly done with fighting, Sang-Hoon straddles him and smashes the hell out of him, punching him in the face over and over as the man cries out.

Finally done and a bit out of breath, Sang-Hoon walks over and crouches near the woman.

You might now be expecting him to ask the usual question- “Are you all right?”- but you’d be very mistaken. Instead, he spits in her face and slaps her hard, knocking her right to the ground again.  She looks up in surprise and he slaps her down again, harder. And again. And again. “Why do you just take it?” he asks, “Stupid bitch.”

Say hello to the star of the film.

We follow Sang-hoon through his worklife and soon find out that he’s a hired goon, a guy who goes out to stomp people who are late with payments. He’s also got a bit of a history of domestic violence, as his dad is currently in jail for one horrific action that still effects his son to this day. The man is just filled with rage, and flies off the handle at every opportunity. He’s known among the people at his job as a guy that will just as soon beat on the people that owe them money as he will his own co-workers. Sang-hoon starts to become a little more calm as he starts to date a high school girl (!), who he met one day after spitting on her. Surprise, surprise, she comes from a broken home as well, with a wannabe gangster brother and crazy war-vet father.

As you might be able to tell, this isn’t a feel-good story. When you come out of it you’ll be convinced that every Korean kid in existence got beat as a child. It’s brutal, unrelenting, and as vulgar as you can get. It’s the kind of film that makes you feel dirty watching it, the kind that will kill any plans you had for later on in the night, because you’ll feel like drawing a hot bath and slitting your wrists.

I say all this in the best way. It’s not a perfect movie, and a lot of it seems to be treading familiar ground, but the way that director Yang Ik-Joon frames his violence is different than most- there are hardly any wide shots. Most of the violence focuses on the faces of the people either beating or getting beaten up, perhaps to try and see what’s going on in there.

A haunting examination of what causes domestic violence, and the circle it creates.

8.0 out of 10

Breathless is playing at the New York Asian Film Festival tonight at the IFC Center, and then again on July 2nd. Check the site out for tickets!