Stop breathing for a moment. A lack of air feeding the brain might make you a little bit dizzy. But this simple experiment is at the heart of what director Kim Ki-duk
wants to express in his 14th film "Breath"
offers only a couple of shocking scenes, which is truly surprising given that Kim has built his colorful career by making movies that test the limits of violence and explore how far extreme situations can go.
The movie starts with a small melodramatic set-up. Yeon (Park Ji-ah
) discovers that her husband is having an affair. When she struggles with a sense of depression and helplessness, she happens to watch television news about an interesting incident.
The news is that Jang Jin
), a death-row inmate, has attempted to commit suicide, but failed to pull it off, at a local prison outside of Seoul. Jang ends up losing his voice. Yeon gets intrigued by Jang's strange behavior and attempts to meet him in person, even telling a lie that she is his former girlfriend.
With the help of a generous security chief of the prison (played by director Kim himself), Yeon is granted a brief meeting with the inmate who cannot speak but has plenty of time to listen to her story. Yeon starts a confessional monologue which describes her childhood drowning experience. She has survived, thankfully, but she still remembers the strange sensations associated with the sudden inability of breathing in water.
Her candid talk has pulled the heartstrings of the inmate whose only hope is to die sooner rather than later. Their relationship gets deeper as she decides to offer her gifts to Jang and visits the prison repeatedly.
Her gift is incredibly ambitious. She wants to present four seasons to Jang. Although her motive is not clear, the impact is incredibly colorful and powerful. When Yeon puts on a spring dress and decorates the prison meeting room with images of bright-colored flowers, the previous dark image of the prison - and imminent death - disappears.
Also notable is Yeon's singing. She sings a song about the springtime quite casually. Strangely, her lively and loud performance comes almost as a shocking moment that lifts the film's overall mood to a level not seen in Kim's previous films.
When the season changes into summer, Yeon prepares the sunny setting, infusing sparkling images into the prison meeting place, again. Her musical performance, this time about a summer beach, is equally unsettling and refreshing because of the sheer explosion of her unfiltered emotions.
All this unrealistic encounters between a talkative housewife and a speechless death-row inmate are also being monitored by the security chief, whose image is only seen through the reflections of the security camera's monitor.
Somebody else is also watching the comic yet thought-provoking scene - Yeon's husband. Though still struggling to over the guilt feeling involving his own extramarital affair, he tries to persuade Yeon out of the prison visit and save the marriage. But Yeon's march to the prison seems unstoppable.
As with director Kim's other films, symbolism abounds in "Breath"
. Yeon and Jang, though their living conditions are markedly different, are dealing with almost the same problems of shattered love, betrayal and alienation.
Their communication takes place in a cramped space in the prison but director Kim's cinematic techniques break the limitations of the material boundaries. The voyeuristic security camera reveals the mesmerizing dynamics of human interactions when character's inhaling and exhaling are interconnected through a precarious emotional outburst.
Director Kim seems to have softened his cinematic approach in "Breath"
because he does not resort to violence and extremism - at least explicitly. Instead, he explores various issues that plague the human nature, opening some room to breathe on the part of the audience.
Meanwhile, the movie has gone through a breath-taking filmmaking process. Kim completed the low-budget film which cost just $265,000 in only 10 shootings. But do not expect the film to be breezy in terms of cinematic power. Just as Yeon delivers the four seasons to Jang in the normally nondescript place as a prison, director Kim creates the eternal cycle of inhaling and exhaling - repetitive and essential human condition - with a breathless style.
By Yang Sung-jin