Competitive swimming film shows young people how to stay afloat in life

Competitive swimming is the springboard for a heartfelt South Korean drama that shows young people how to cope with the difficulties in life, writes Darcy Paquet

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 08 December, 2013, 3:55pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 10 December, 2013, 5:54pm

At the 2008 Beijing Olympics, 19-year-old Park Tae-hwan became the first South Korean to win a gold medal in swimming when he touched the finish line in the 400-metre freestyle event. His triumph sparked a new interest in competitive swimming in his country.

The teen swimmer also opened the door for the production of No Breathing. Although it's not a biopic, the film is inspired by Park's early career, with its two main characters embodying elements of his story.

Ultimately, learning to be happy is far more important than winning or losing
Cho Yong-sun, director

Director-scriptwriter Cho Yong-sun had been following Park for several years before his win in Beijing. "As a screenwriter you're always on the lookout for something that can serve as the motive for a story," says Cho, who shares scripting credits with Yoo Young-a. "I remember watching the 2007 World Aquatics Championships in Australia, and Park looked tiny compared to the other swimmers. In the middle of the 400-metre freestyle he was in fifth place or something, and I thought, 'Asian swimmers can't really compete at this level.' But then he swam the last 50 metres without coming up for air, and passed everyone to win it."

Park's unusual technique of keeping his head underwater gives the film its title, and Cho considers it a good metaphor for the high spirits and determination of youth.

No Breathing features rising star Lee Jong-suk as Woo-sang, a moody top-ranked high school swimmer who is struggling under the weight of expectations on his shoulders. When Won-il (Seo In-guk), a gifted and free-spirited swimmer who has been away from the sport for several years, transfers to Woo-sang's school, their personalities clash; both boys also fall in love with Jung-eun, their childhood friend, played by K-pop idol singer Kwon Yuri.

Cho, whose directorial debut comes after a decade working on various film crews, says he sees No Breathing primarily as a coming-of-age story, or a family film. But it is also South Korea's first swimming movie and proved challenging.

"It's hard to shoot in the water. On a technical level, we tried out a huge number of different tests and techniques, because there weren't any good models we could follow from past films," Cho says.

Dramatically, it's not easy to convey emotions or tension when the actors' faces are underwater, he says. "With soccer or baseball, you can insert dialogue scenes in the middle of the game, and break up the action in different ways. But swimming events take place in an uninterrupted five-minute burst. The dramatic hurdles were more difficult than the technical ones."

Cho has done well on both fronts. The dramatic tension slowly builds up to the final confrontation, and the film is notable for the speed and fluidity of its underwater camera work. "It was hard to pull off, but I guess future directors can learn from my example," he says.

Apart from its subject matter, No Breathing has also attracted attention because of its cast: the three leads, who have each taken an indirect road to acting, all come with significant fan followings.

Lee was a runway model before attaining stardom in South Korean TV drama Secret Garden. He has a key role in The Face Reader, a recent period blockbuster that has garnered more than 65 billion won (HK$475 million) at the box office. No Breathing is Lee's first lead role in film. Cho cast him before the recent surge in his popularity: "He fit the image of Woo-sang perfectly, and I knew as soon as I saw him that he'd be good for the role."

Seo grew up in a poor family, but his life changed dramatically after he placed first in popular TV singing competition Superstar K in 2009. His first leading role was in TV drama Reply 1997, which won a large viewership for its nostalgic portrayal of 1990s South Korea.

Kwon is already a household name: she is part of the hugely popular nine-member group Girls' Generation. "I told Yuri, let's just forget about Girls' Generation, and all the expectations placed on you, and focus on your character," says Cho. "I was really impressed with her motivation, and throughout the shooting she really developed as an actress."

Lee and Seo had to learn to swim well enough to pass for accomplished athletes: they underwent two months of training. "In-guk already had a lot of experience swimming because he grew up near the ocean. But swimming in the ocean and swimming in a pool are different things," Cho says. "Jong-suk had never swum before, but he had a much easier time than In-guk because he didn't have any bad habits to unlearn. He also has a physique that is perfectly suited to swimming. He was getting the hang of it after just six hours."

Cho placed a special emphasis on family relations and friendship in this story of rivalry and self-imposed pressure. "Through the metaphor of 'no breathing', I wanted to give encouragement to young people … to say that even if things are difficult, they should not give up, they should be themselves and enjoy each moment as much as they can," Cho says. "Ultimately, learning to be happy is far more important than winning or losing."

In this sense, there is a warmth and simplicity to No Breathing that is entirely intentional. "Some people have said the story's too simple, or that it's resolved too easily," the director says.

"I think we've fallen into a situation where viewers expect the quirky or the unusual so much they've lost their appreciation for the basics. This kind of simply told narrative is at the heart of cinema. It's a shame some people reject it."

No Breathing opens on Thursday