By Andrew Hamlin
Northwest Asian Weekly
“Breath,” the latest dramatic film from eccentric South Korean director Ki-duk Kim, begins with a prison inmate scratching on a wall with some kind of pen-shaped object. It isn’t clear why he’s scratching, or what kind of tool he’s using.
Subsequent scenes show how the inmates, housed three or four to a cell, will do just about anything to pass the hours. The viewer also sees that they can fashion a sharp-pointed, scratching object out of just about anything, given enough time. This determination to achieve a difficult goal, with limited resources, becomes the underlying theme of the film.
Taiwanese actor Chen Chang, who starred in such movies as “Happy Together” and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” plays an inmate named Jang-jin. Sentenced to death for murder, Jang-jin seizes power in the only way he can. He constantly tries to kill himself in his cell. This is the only form of control over his destiny available to him.
In a town near the prison, a young wife and mother named Yeon (Ji-ah Park, who starred in several of Ki-duk Kim’s previous movies), shares a household with her small daughter and her abusive husband (Jeong-woo Ha). After watching Jang-jin’s television coverage, she decides to visit the prison. A most unusual relationship ensues.
“Breath” does not do a very good job of explaining what is going on over the length of the film. Jang-jin’s dilemma over who will control his fate seems understandable enough. But Yeon’s various attempts to make Jang-jin fall in love with her seem both desperate and unrealistic. This is a serious flaw running through the whole structure.
The movie finds its strength in the performances. Jang-jin remains mute due to a self-inflicted injury, forcing Chen Chang to work with his face, body, and occasional animal-like noises.
He transcends these limits to give a riveting and nuanced performance. His expressive eyes can simmer with longing, or boil over with rage or lust. In the company of his cellmates, he can seem quite childlike, cuddling affectionately one moment, then lashing out and slap-fighting the next.
As Yeon, Ji-ah Park becomes absolutely fearless. Each one of her visits to Jang-jin has a carefully choreographed beginning, middle, and end. To make us believe in this sadly unbalanced woman, Ms. Park must throw herself unreservedly into Yeon’s desperation. She musters inspired, although disjointed, and creative ways to win the inmate’s heart. Through her performance and character, she shows no fear.
A well-grounded visual element also helps Ki-duk Kim tell his tale. Inside the prison, a thin, bright light shines on the institutional, gray concrete walls, setting off the deeper blue of the inmate’s uniforms. Outside the prison, Kim breaks up this monotony with occasional and unusual flashes of color — such as a bright orange building or Yeon’s vivid spring dress, which contrasts with the overcast weather. Even in dreary surroundings, Kim seems to say, we can find brightness if we dedicate ourselves to looking.
With its illogical plot, “Breath” can’t be called the finest piece in Ki-duk Kim’s body of work. But its unique way of looking at the world, coupled with the intensity of its male and female leads, make it well worth the trip to the cinema. ♦
“Breath” plays May 6 to May 12 at the Grand Illusion Cinema, 1403 N.E. 50th Street, in Seattle’s University District. For prices and showtimes, call 206-523-3935 or visit www.grandillusioncinema.org.
Andrew Hamlin can be reached at email@example.com.