I’d watch this show for Seo In-gook and Lee Jong-suk, plot or no-plot. But thankfully, the sports school setting, which replaces the usual High School drama setting, works well here for the young casts. Although the storyline is kinda predictable, and can be summed up in these few words: youth, daddy-issues and talent vs. hardwork.

Main cast:

  • Lee Jong-suk (from I Hear Your Voice) as Woo-sang. The swim prodigy, who has a flash temper to match. He got in trouble by beating up an Australian opponent and got sent to be “reformed” in Seoul’s top sports school. He is slightly arrogant, and very proud of his sports ability which he pours HOURS into perfecting…so much so that he gets offended when he is beaten by a competitor whom he feels is less hardworking than him (see below). He comes from a rich family, and his daddy issue stems from a cold, demanding father who only wants him to be first, never second. He is cold and aloof on the outside, but has a soft spot for Jeong-eun whom he harboured a crush on ever since elementary grade. He turns into an adoring puppy around her. (too cute)
  • Seo In-gook (from Reply 1997) as Won-il. His dad was a national swimmer, and he inherited the genetical trait of holding his breath for super long underwater, allowing him to swim faster/longer without coming up for air. Although he loves swimming, he grew up hating it cos his dad never had time for him and preferred to spend time in the water than with his son. In addition, his dad died during a swim meet (for over holding his breath). His mum died (of heartache?) too, and he was brought up by his dad’s ex-coach (now cab driver), cum neighbour. Both he and Woo-sang studied in the same elementary school and he bested Woo-sang in a swimming competition one day. He also likes Jeong-eun, but only realises it after he meets compeition in the form of Woo-sang.
  • Kwon Yuri (from Fashion King) as Jeong-eun. Daughter of Won-il’s surrogate dad (Jae-suk). An aspiring singer and plays the love interest of both boys in the movie. (and if you want to know, i think she likes goofy Won-il more than adoring Woo-sang)

Plot Synopsis:

nb7Won-il gets expelled from high school, after getting into a fight with his classmates. But we are quite sure that he was provoked first, since we see beaten up classmate smirking at the announcement of his expulsion. He leans in to the provocateur…and gives him a friendly advice not to do that again. Jae-suk, upon learning of Won-il’s expulsion frets for him, and looks up his friend who is a swimming coach (Coach Jang) in Seoul’s sports school. He manages to plead successfully to get Won-il enrolled, with the promise that he can swim. On enrollment day, Jae-suk dumps Won-il (to his protests) at the school’s gate, with orders to “stay in there”. (lol)

In contrast to Won-il’s mundane background, we are introduced to Woo-sang, who is the national swimmer…but sent back home for beating up an Auzzie competitor during the Olympics selection round. Woo-sang is sent to the same sports school for “reformation” or a cooling-down until the media frenzy is over. Both boys end up in the same school, and the same dorm.

Their new classmates are not so happy with the additions though. Or rather, they don’t like Woo-sang (with his aloof and stuck up attitude), but think Won-il is kinda harmless…cos he displays this goofy vibe. Won-il gets invited to a midnight get-together with two of his (juz as goofy) classmates (Jeong-dong and Dae-chan). He is reluctant until they dangle that there’s a lot of FOOD at the get-together. Dae-chan produces a bottle of liquor and despite Won-il’s misgivings, the three ended up finishing the bottle. Woo-sang finds Won-il sprawled on the floor of the dorm in dead-drunk state and is annoyed.

nb1Next morning Coach Jang catches wind of students drinking in their dorms, and asks the perpetuator to own up or the whole class will be punished with no weekend break. Won-il steps forward to take the blame, to Jeong-dong and Dae-chan’s shock. His punishment is to swim 500 (yes, 500) laps in the pool. If he is not able to complete, the class will still have their weekend break cancelled. Amazingly, he does complete all 500 laps, and collapses in a faint after that…but immediately asks if the canteen is still opened, cos he is super hungry. (lol)

Although Woo-sang doesn’t admit it, he is secretly impressed with Won-il’s ability. Next day, he wakes Won-il up seeing that he’d soon be late for class…only to get Won-il whine at him to feed him water, since his arms are still aching from the punishing laps yesterday. (seo in-gook looks adorable in bed head, btw) Woo-sang obliges and Won-il asks whether he recognises him.

We get a flashback to when the boys were kids in elementary school. Woo-sang lost a swimming competition to the school’s “natural” swimmer, Won-il (whose dad is a famous national swimmer). He angrily tossed his silver medal into the trash can only to have Won-il pick it up and come running to return the medal he “dropped”. Humiliated, Woo-sang (re)threw the medal away and told Won-il not to talk to him anymore before getting into his chauffeured car. Won-il stood there, confused.

nb6Back to the present — Woo-sang is uncomfortable with Won-il recognising him, and curtly leaves the room. The next we see is Woo-sang bare chested and sprawled on a bed …getting a medical check up. (what? were u thinking of something else?) It seems like he had a spinal/back problem, which may impede his swimming career. However, he requests his doctor not to mention it to his dad.

After the medical checkup, Woo-sang pops by to visit Jeong-eun with a bunch of flowers…only to be waylaid by Won-il at the door. Flustered, he claims he is “visiting” Won-il and dumps the flowers at him. (lol) He gets teased by the Won-il and the boys (Dae-chan and Jeong-dong) during the bbq lunch get-together at Jae-suk/Jeong-eun’s house. Irritated, he blurts out that he likes Jeong-eun…to everyone’s surprise, especially Won-il’s.

Now that his declaration is out in the open, he hangs around Jeong-eun shamelessly. In a quick flashback, we see that he had a crush on her ever since he heard her singing in an empty classroom when they were both in elementary school. Jeong-eun noticed his spying, but instead of getting annoyed, she befriended him and wished him luck in his future competitions. The kind words stayed with him since (this kid seriously has a people-problem), and he now targets Jeong-eun as his girlfriend as a “return favour”.

This is really cute. Lee Jong-suk with Shin Min-chul (who acted as Jeong-dong)

Woo-sang’s current day attention towards Jeong-eun is jealously noted by Won-il…who claims he doesn’t like Jeong-eun, but yet is very disturbed when he sees Jeong-eun with Woo-sang. Poor Won-il is always doing sweet things without Jeong-eun’s knowledge — like getting drenched while keeping her guitar out of the rain…only to see Woo-sang sheltering Jeong-eun with his umbrella later. (dude…the point is the human-girl, not the instrument..). But, Jeong-eun does get to know about Won-il’s feelings towards her later, when she finds countless pieces of love letter drafts in his room and a bracelet that Won-il bought for her (but didn’t have guts to give, after seeing Woo-sang present her with a luxury item). Of cos, when Won-il finds out she knows, he nearly dies of mortification. (seo in-gook squirming is ultra-cute too)

The sports school gets sent to the Philippines for extra training, and Woo-sang meets the Auzzie guy there by chance. (cos y’know, the world is not very big) The Australians bet on a relay competition against the Koreans. The Korean team is losing out on the first 2 laps and Woo-sang irritably pushes Won-il away to take third lap. He manages to close the gap, but the team still lags. Won-il, however, wins for the team…because of his innate ability to hold his breath longer. His ability is witnessed by Coach Jang, who immediately associates a previous national swimmer with the same ability. He confirms his hunch that Won-il is the son of said national swimmer with Jae-suk.

nb3However, Coach Jang’s interest in Won-il is curtailed when Won-il gets into a fight with one of the seniors. The fight is brought about by the senior’s bullying of Jeong-dong who is picked for the national swim team selection. Jeong-dong has a previous back injury, which the senior caught wind of. He used it to blackmail Jeong-dong into giving up his national team’s placement (since sportsmen with latent injuries are not allowed to represent the nation). Jeong-dong, who wishes to make it big to earn money for his mother’s hospitalisation bills, had no choice but to give up his dream and drops out of the school. Won-il literally smashes the senior’s face in when he knows of this…so he too gets expelled. But, Woo-sang secretly helps Won-il by submitting his name as an independent contestant for the national swim team selection.

Woo-sang’s dad tries to get him back on the national team without going through the selection process, by playing dirty (paying loads of money to sponsors of the Olympics). Woo-sang is unhappy that his father had to resort to such tricks instead of trusting him and his ability. Needless to say, Woo-sang’s dad is mad that his son doesn’t appreciate his efforts.

Woo-sang recognises that in order to improve on his skills, he needs a worthy competitor — Won-il. Unfortunately, Won-il has been in a funk ever since he got himself expelled from school. Woo-sang drops by one day with his iPad and shows Won-il a video clip of an interview his dad did before the fatal swimming accident. In the clip, Won-il’s dad acknowledged that he has been neglecting his duties as father and husband due to his obligation to the nation. However, he promises to play baseball with his young son after this last competition. And he is proud that his son is a better swimmer than him.

nb4After watching that clip, Won-il’s long harboured hatred against his dad finally unknots. He had misunderstood his father and assumed that his father’s hard work at providing for his family is a lack of interest. Because of his dad’s aloofness and eventual death in the pool during a competition, Won-il has came to hate swimming and sporting events. With this knot undone, he finally undergoes serious training with Jae-suk (also his dad’s coach) for the national swim team selection.

Woo-sang’s dad too, finally comes around and acknowledges his son’s hardwork when he finally learns that Woo-sang has been keeping the back injury a secret in order to train himself harder to win the Olympic gold. After watching Woo-sang train tirelessly in the pool, he goes up to inform him that he has cancelled the “contributions” to the Olympic sponsors.

The day of the selection comes around — the boys have to swim a 400m lap. In the last lap, both Won-il and Woo-sang are literally neck to neck. And Won-il wins, by a mere 0.01 second. Despite being placed second, Woo-sang and his dad are for once, happy. Since they both finally come to terms that there is no need to always be first if you have given your all, and enjoyed the process. Both boys get selected to be on the national team and end up competing against each other again in the London Olympics. As to who eventually gets the girl…nobody. Even though Won-il won the bet (loser to give up Jeong-eun) against Woo-sang in the selection round.


nb2Nothing wow about this movie, but nothing horribly unwatchable either. It uses the cut-and-dried, well-tested formula of youth (its earnestness, its angst) set against the backdrop of a school (then you have friendship, puppy love) and then you throw in the family issues (the demanding and the not-present dad). (cos what is adolescent pain without friendship issues and family disputes?) Because it is so safe, it is a good debut platform for our young actors and actress. Granted, Lee Jong-suk had an earlier movie — The Face Reader (note to kooriyuki: oy, are you coming out with that review or not?!) — but his appearance there is at best a semi-cameo role. He wasn’t the lead, and his role there was kinda minimal.

So for Lee Jong-suk, I’d consider No Breathing as his full debut into the movie industry. And since himself with Seo In-gook have played student roles in their various dramas (think School 2013 and Answer Me 1997), they morph easily into their roles as the rebel and the goofy high schoolers sports school students. I’d like to say Kwon Yuri did a good job in her role too…BUT sorry, not able to…cos she is thoroughly flaaatttt in her character portrayal of Jeong-eun. Ok, to be fair to her, Jeong-eun as a character is not really fleshed out. We only see her as an aspiring singer and the love interest of both guys. That’s…about it. Somehow I feel the writers put Jeong-eun in for the purpose of letting Kwon Yu-ri sing in the movie. (bleah)

The sidekicks, Dae-chan and Jeong-dong, are also not characters but just plot movers. We only get a glimpse into Jeong-dong’s family problems and how he still aspires to complete his dream despite them. But he is eventually used more as a mechanism to push Won-il and Woo-sang’s friendship and Won-il’s acceptance of his deceased father. Cos Jeong-dong really disappears from the scenes after that. Which is a pity, cos I felt his backstory would have been worth a bigger mention, cos Jeong-dong represents the Regular Joe who doesn’t have the genes or the family riches like Won-il and Woo-sang, but still puts in his best efforts to reach his objective.

Taken in as a whole, No Breathing is like a mini-K-drama with all the familiar elements compressed into a 2h show. Some makjang, some funnies, predictable plot but generally still nicely packaged with eye candies.

3.5/5 stars