Yang, left, and actress Kim Kkobbi in a scene from “Breathless”
/ Courtesy of Jin Jin Pictures
By Lee Hyo-won
``I also think it is a superb film,'' director-actor Yang Ik-june told The Korea Times in an interview, Thursday, in Seoul, when this reporter complimented his multiple award-winning film ``Breathless.'' ``Other directors are going to think I'm nauseating,'' said the 33-year-old headline maker, exploding into another one of his distinct, high-pitched giggles.
While sporting the same short haircut and mustache, as well the Nike sneakers, from the film, Yang was nothing like the brooding, foul-mouthed thug he played. His feature directorial debut, ``Breathless,'' has swept top awards at numerous film festivals, from Rotterdam to Las Palmas. Naturally, Yang had been giving non-stop interviews but he still beamed with energy at 8:30 p.m.
At the international events, he said he had fun being called ``― nom (bastard)'' ― a word that appears in almost every line of the movie ― by foreign cineastes and festivalgoers. In Deauville, France, ``Breathless'' was never confused with the Jean-Luc Godard film of the same English title, and he even got to meet Pierre Rissient, who was the assistant director of the Nouvelle Vague masterpiece. He loved the movie and treated Yang to several meals.
Nevertheless, he seemed unperturbed by the sudden fame. ``The trophies look all the same,'' he joked. He's thankful and honored, but had experienced too many overwhelming emotions during the three years of making ``Breathless'' to be besieged. Yang produced, directed and played the lead in the movie, and had to move three times to fund it. He casually mentioned that the numerous awards didn't always include cash prizes. ``I mean, I need money to live,'' chuckled Yang, who has been living in sunless subterranean flats with an annual income of less than 10 million won ($10,000) for almost a decade.
``You need to forget about (the fame and honor) in order to return to a normal life,'' he said. ``A movie happens to get made when you're just living life. It's like you have to have intercourse first in order to have a baby, without using contraceptives,'' he grinned. ``If you keep thinking, `I want to make a movie, I want to act,' then you just become enslaved by your intense desires. You have to live life.''
What does he normally do? ``I just do normal things… I listen to music, go out and about town, meet friends, think about raunchy things, reflect on small moments of the day,'' he said. ``It's the small things in daily life that inspire me.''
This attitude of being in touch with reality extends to the moviemaking process. As a director, he doesn't ask anything of his actors. He allows them to color their characters with their own personalities, so their character becomes the actor rather than the other way around. Acting ― a word he said he hates but has no choice to use ― ``is something you can't learn. I wanted my actors to pour their own life into the roles,'' he said.
Portrait of a Family
``Breathless'' is about a victim of domestic violence that grows up to become an aggressive brute, but rediscovers hope when he meets a girl. The movie features dark themes, but it is no Kim Ki-duk film and depicts a very human and warm portrait of the lowly life. It is a partly autobiographical story inspired by his family and friends in Namgok-dong, a poor town in Chungcheong Province.
Cinema, he said, was a form of self-expression. ``People think and feel things in a universal way, but at the same time, each person is so unique and special,'' said Yang. ```Breathless' is a story about Korea, a story about a family. People were able to relate because families are similar, although the degree of family problems vary of course.''
He said the movie was like a ``diary'' where he wrote everything he wanted to say all at once. ``It was an exorcism for me,'' he said. Doesn't he feel uncomfortable about revealing himself? ``No. It's like being naked at a nude beach or sharing your worries with friends who can relate to you,'' he said.
Yang's friends and family are very proud, he said. On Friday evening, the director and the main cast members mingled with friends and fans as one-time waiters at a bar in Sinchon. A group of his closest friends spoke affectionately of Yang's well-deserved success. While they were leading stable careers, Yang was always the broke artist. This was despite the fact that he came from one of the more prosperous families in town. ``His father runs a furniture store but he refused to succeed him. He wanted to be independent,'' one friend, who asked not to be identified, told The Korea Times.
The director has the amazing ability to make you feel at ease, as if you're talking with your best friend over a drink even though we were drinking tea at a cafe. He would be serious one moment and goofy the next, but consistently surprised you with his unabashed honesty.
``I want to say ` ― you' to the world through my films,'' he said. He also wants to show the male private parts onscreen someday. ``Koreans think it's artistic when they see it in a foreign film, but here they censor it. We feel unstable in this world because we want things to be safe all the time, but we need to be courageous,'' said the director, who respects cineastes like John Cameron Mitchell (``Shortbus''). ``Sex is part of life,'' he said.
The rising director said he wants to continue exploring life through movies. One project he has in mind is about children of the underworld, and he also wants to make love stories. Does he feel pressured about having set high standards for his future films? ``No, I'm just the human Yang Ik-june,'' he said.
Yang was born in 1975 in Chungcheong Province. He studied acting at Kongju Communications Arts College and played minor roles in mainstream movies including ``Viva! Love.'' He received awards and critical acclaim for the short films he starred in and directed such as ``Lovers.'' ``Breathless'' is his first feature film.
``Breathless'' opens in theaters April 16. 130 minutes. 19 and over. Distributed by Jin Jin Pictures.