This film is all about the human impulse for destruction. I don't mean violence. For a Kim Ki-duk film "Breath" is actually pretty subdued in that department. Jin (played by Chang Chen) is a condemned criminal who repeatedly tries to kill himself because all he does anymore is sit around in a locked cage all day. Yeon (played by Park Ji-ah) is a bit broader in her motivation. She just wants to destroy everything indiscriminately, and she accomplishes this by romancing Yeon.
I know that sentence makes no sense whatever, and that's pretty much the whole point of the movie. In order to destroy, Yeon must first create something worth destroying. So she creates this love with a man who wants to die. It's meaningful enough for Jin, and bizarrely, the dark nature underlying Yeon's actions isn't even much of a betrayal. You can't really betray a person who had nothing to start out with. So even though their relationship is based entirely on artificial happiness, it still works.
There's an oddly human quintessential irrationality in all this, particularly from the point of view of the observer. Jin and Yeon are frequently watched through the camera systems of the prison, such that when clear boundaries are pushed and they're forced to separate, well, that just makes us more curious as to how far they're going to go next time. The ethical position of "Breath" is weirdly neutral. It's hard to tell whether the events portrayed are good or bad. They just sort of are.
If there's any kind of moral lesson to be taken out of the film, it's that people are naturally inclined to want to destroy stuff, and we should accept that. After the opening events in particular, it's hard to imagine what else Yeon could possibly do with her anger and frustration that wouldn't have much worse after-effects. She quite literally only damages inanimate objects, and only ever really hurts Jin in one weird scene where the true source of Yeon's emotions overwhelms her cheery countenance.
"Breath" begs a lot of questions about what happiness is, why people go to any effort at all to make each other happy, and what we're supposed to do when the happiness is gone. But for their emotional moments of lover's fervour, it's clear by the end that neither Jin nor Yeon have been meaningfully altered by their experience. All they really wanted was a moment to indulge in an emotion that's not depression, and once that time is up, it's the other important relationships in their lives that ultimately decide the fate of our main characters- not the erstwhile connection they had with each other.
All of this works to give "Breath" an unusual place in the Kim Ki-duk canon. Rather than exposing the most animalistic instincts in humans trying to attain the illusion of happiness, Jin and Yeon suppress these feelings and subliminate them into something less damaging and more positive, leading to a more more pleasant outcome as the situation changes around them. Apparently, there's a good way to be selfish. That's a weird message to take in, and probably ultimately disqualifies "Breath" from being true artform, but it's an interesting one all the same.
Review by William Schwartz
Available on DVD from Amazon and YESASIA
DVD US (En Sub)
DVD UK (En Sub)
Staff writer. Has been writing articles for HanCinema since 2012, having lived in South Korea since 2011. Started out in Gyeongju, then to Daegu, then to Ansan, then to Yeongju, then to Seoul, lived on the road for HanCinema's travel diaries series in the summer of 2016, and is currently settled in Anyang. Has good tips for utilizing South Korea's public bus system. William Schwartz can be contacted via firstname.lastname@example.org.
"[HanCinema's Film Review] "Breath""
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