Breath Review

Despite being a filmmaker firmly in the school of visual storytelling who avoids using dialogue if he can help it, Kim Ki-duk is not a Korean director whose work translates easily to an international market. He has, however, been fairly prolific in churning out celebrated (and deranged) love stories, at least once every year since his debut, that are usually variations of the same trope—like an artsy Korean Woody Allen.

Breath is Kim’s fourteenth feature film from a few years back, having competed in the 2007 Cannes Film Festival for the Palme d’Or and released in its native country the same year, but didn’t find US distribution until this year. Compared to the treatment of his previous films following the turn of the millennium, it seems like the interest in Kim Ki-duk as an auteur has waned on the international stage, but the lack of enthusiasm can also be attributed to the fact that Breath is far from his best effort. Derivative, even, for a master like him.

Much about the film seems to come from the signature Kim Ki-duk template—an abandoned woman and an eccentric man, conducting a forbidden relationship in an unusual setting—minus the unique and often unsettling execution. Indeed, this concept begins to feel stale after he’d already done the same thing brilliantly in virtually all of his previous movies, reaching his high point in 3-Iron, which Breath unfortunately invites comparisons to with the same unlikely pairing of a sympathetic criminal and a wronged housewife.

This time, the housewife is Jeon, who discovers, devastatingly but not shockingly, that her distant husband has been having an affair with another woman. She decides that the proper response to this betrayal is to drive to a prison facility and give an inmate on death row (that she’s seen on the news for his repeated suicide attempts) a face-to-face visit—the first of many. Pretending to be his ex-girlfriend, she does everything she can to cheer up Jang, this criminal she doesn’t know, with stories, songs, and seasonal decorations, which before long turn into hugs and kisses and perhaps more.

In 3-Iron, neither of the lovers ever speak to each other, while the obstacles in their way, including the woman’s husband, does. They exist in a wordless, almost divine state that separates them from the rest of the world. In Breath, Jang never speaks (which conveniently allows Kim to cast a big name like Taiwanese star Chang Chen, who doesn’t speak Korean) while Jeon rambles on, which is used as a contrast to how Jeon never speaks at home even as her husband confronts her directly. How this differing behavior affects her relationship with the two men is never fully developed, only repeated, even as the film draws to a close and her conflict with her husband is rapidly and unsatisfyingly resolved.

The film’s title is invoked for the first time when Jeon tells Jang in her visit that she once drowned and died for several minutes when she was a child, but the importance of “breath” is of course a motif for the film’s theme of trapped isolation, which is visually represented in both Jang’s jail cell and Jeon’s prison-like home life. This is obvious and admittedly shallow, and even with Kim’s track record of being ambiguous with the meanings behind his films, it’s strikingly obtuse without communicating any real commentary about either of the characters’ isolation. Instead, Kim tacks on a baffling subplot about how the lovers’ visits are allowed under the unexplained whims of a CCTV-observing prison warden played by Kim himself, which suggests an allusion to the filmmaker-as-omnipotent-god idea, though that doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the rest of the film’s themes and just serves to complicate the film’s crash of symbolism further.

Compared to Kim’s earlier efforts, the relationship in Breath feels like an attempt to re-capture the magic of those movies, without the inspiration that’ll sustain the premise for a feature length. Kim’s films typically move in a slow, delicate fashion, but Breath is the first I’ve seen from him where the second act simply drags, with its two characters having nothing to do and are forced to repeat the same actions and emotions. Kim doesn’t even go for the extreme gestures that usually punctuate his movies (and make them so memorable).

Of course, this being a Kim Ki-duk film, Breath still finds a way to be engaging to its very end, by way of Kim’s lyrical control of the mood of his scenes, and the captivating mute performances that he somehow always manages to fish out of his actors. There’s a sense of watching the beauty of filmmaking unfold, as the blank whiteness of the snowy outdoors and Jeon’s home give way to the vibrant colors of the small visiting room where Jang and Jeon have their brief, always-interrupted trysts.

"Breath" is on sale August 16, 2011 and is not rated. Drama, Romance. Directed by Kim Fields, Kim Ki Duk. Written by Kim Ki-duk. Starring Chang Chen, Park Ji Ah.

Arya Ponto • Contributor

As former Editor of JPP, Arya likes to entertain peeps with his thoughts on pop culture, when he's not busy watching Battle Royale for the 200th time. He lives in Brooklyn with a comic book collection that's always the most daunting thing to move with, and writes for Artboiled.com.


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