Breath (2007): South Korean Director Kim Ki-duks

Reviewed by Patrick Z. McGavin

Cannes Film Festival 2007 (World Premiere, Competition)–The story of a disenfranchised wife who initiates a strangely liberating and tender relationship with a death row inmate, South Korean director Kim Ki-duks Breath has much to recommend, shaped by a steely precision and considerable visual invention.

Unfortunately the parts never quite cohere into a satisfying and substantial whole, resulting in a work that is tantalizing though frustratingly incomplete.

It opens in a dank prison cell where four men are clustered together. One of the inmates is viewed fastidiously sharpening the end of a tooth brush by furiously pushing its point into the concrete wall. Suddenly, the death row inmate, Jang Jin (Chang Chen) known by his prisoner number 5697, snatches it away and impulsively plunges the sharp object into his neck, the spasm of blood shooting into the face of his cell mate.

A local prisoner of some notoriety, his suicide attempt is promptly aired on local television stations, and the news captures the attention of Yeon (Zia). Shes an attractive brunette who seems unmoored, an artist who designs interesting sculptures though otherwise demonstrates little apparent passion or emotional urgency. Shes a fragile woman drifting passively through the cold and impersonal spaces of her familys Seoul apartment. Her husband (Ha Jeong-woo), dull, temperamental and holding a quick temper, bullies her and she has no response to his indifference and humiliation. The couple has a beautiful young daughter who seems enamoured with her mother, but Yeon appears even disconnected from the needs and interior life of the child.

Kim is a talented visual artist, and he has a natural ability to express his ideas visually. There are recurring visual motifs, such as Yeon allowing her husbands prized white dress shirts to drift harmlessly to the street from the top of their apartment building, a telling indication of her disgust at playing the role of a conventional, tradition-bound wife. He is also good at the almost poetic arrangement of streetlamps captured from the interior of a car that underline Yeons alienation and loneliness.

Following a nasty dispute with her husband at night, Yeon repairs to the street, hails a cab and requests to be taken to the prison holding Jang Jin. She turns up the front of the prison, asking to be allowed to see him, claiming she is the mans former girlfriend. She is under constant surveillance by the prisons closed circuit operator, and her request is granted. The woman and prisoner separated by a glass partition, she relates a traumatic childhood incident when playing with adolescent friends in the water, she held her breath, lost consciousness and was ruled technically dead for five minutes.

The searing reminder of loss and pain symbolically attaches her to his plight (his suicide attempt has delayed his scheduled execution date). She admonishes him to protect his own life. The scene sets up a series of strange and charged encounters between the two. The storys set during a desolate stretch of winter. Yeon arrives at the prison and uses her artistic talents to illustrate their private rendezvous room with ravishingly intricate dcor and color coded wall paper to match the shifting seasons (a echoing of Kims best known international work, Spring, Summer, Winter, Fall Spring).

Each appointment brings them closer in physical contact. Her extended and unexplained absence finally incurs the curiosity of her husband, who one day trails her to the prison and discovers the nature of her secret activity.

Breath is a work of fluctuating and rhyming patterns. Yeon refuses to speak to her husband, a development paralleled by Jang Jins silence with the prison authorities. His communication with Yeon is direct, unmediated, marked by physical actions, most evocatively, the imprint of his breath left on the glass partition that separates them.

Kim largely fails to explore with greater authority and dramatic point of view the shifting nature of their relationship, using incident, characterization or movement to counterpoint or contrast the emotional repercussions of their involvement. Even at just 84 minutes, the movie feels overextended with situations too similar and unvaried to create a convincing emotional or even sexual portrait.

Too much of Breath is repetitive, particularly the almost sadistic games of sexual torment and humiliation Jang Jims cell mates deploy, imposing a nasty undercurrent of homoerotic fixation further deepened by the prison supervisor who tracks each development from the vantage of the closed security footage.

Kim is better with his sharp visual ideas encompassing both the outr, a powerful representation of bondage that shifts the material into a darker and more sinister realm of power, control and transference. In concert with his excellent cinematographer Seong Jong-mu, Kim is very good at using objects and landmarksa latticed steel enforced bridge is particularly effectivein yielding an expressive physical and moral context to shape the action.

Kim is good with actors, the excellent Taiwanese actor Chang Chen (a significant actor in the works of Hou Hsiao-hsien and Wong Kar-wai) performs impressively through restricted and highly interior movements. Zia is also impressive, capably projecting a woman thwarted by social restriction. The role of her husband is a fairly thankless part, and Ha does little to acquire any distinctive personality.

Breath is a film of ambition and ideas, though the execution is too isolated and fractured to allow it perspective and dramatic interest.