Sunday, July 6, 2008
Kim Ki-Duk goes for something a little less extreme with Breath, a spare and potentially less disturbing film than one might expect from the well-known auteur, whose predilection with cruelty and violence have made him a notorious arthouse figure. The film stars Taiwanese actor Chang Chen as Jang Jin, a death row inmate who attempts to hasten his upcoming demise by stabbing himself in the throat with a sharpened toothbrush. The attempt is unsuccessful, only raising the concern of his cellmates, one of whom who carries an unspoken homoerotic crush on the doomed Jang. The suicide attempt also makes the news, reaching the attention of disaffected housewife Yeon (Zia), who passes her days sculpting, doing laundry, and generally looking like she's going to step off her balcony one day.
Yeon has a daughter and a husband (Ha Jung-Woo), but the latter has strayed. Impelled by her anger or perhaps merely her daily monotony, Yeon visits the prison, and asks to see Jang Jin, saying that she's his ex-girlfriend. She's rejected, but is let in soon afterwards by the prison's apparent in-charge, a faceless, nameless individual running the prison's security cameras. This person seems to have an odd and perverse interest in seeing Yeon interact with Jang Jin, first separated by a window, and then within the confines of a visiting room during her later visits. At the first visit, she tells Jang about her own near-death experience, when she held her breath for five minutes underwater as a child. After telling Jang Jin not to hurt himself again, she leaves, returning to her cold, evidently unfulfilling life.
But she returns again and again, bringing a new season each time. During each visit, she wallpapers the visiting room to resemble a season, dresses in the appropriate clothing, and even sings a song, while Jang Jin looks on quietly. He's mute because he stabbed himself in the throat - which helps out the Korean-impaired Chang Chen - and he watches her curiously, intently, and ultimately affectionately. Chang turns in a fine performance, considering that he can only communicate through minute actions and facial expressions, creating a character that's interesting and even sympathetic, though the enormity of his death-row crime seems a little jarring once its revealed. There seems to be a connection between his crime and Yeon's life, as the cold reality of modern life is portrayed as a silent, oppressive weight, suffocating individuals until they can only react, either by forming a bizarre connection with a death row prisoner or, in the case of Jang Jing, something far, far worse.
Kim Ki-Duk is not explicit about the film's message, but the themes are obvious. His settings are cold and unwelcoming, with only Yeon's wallpapered visiting room and colorful outfits and performances providing any spark or life. It seems that the characters in Breath must step outside the norm to find life, and create it for themselves if it's not there. Otherwise, life is a drag, with people seemingly uncommunicative and unsympathetic towards one another. And yet Kim does allow the film its uplifting emotions, bringing unspoken understanding between characters and the promise of accord that seems to indicate better times even outside the visiting room's walls. Meanwhile, other characters take an almost perverse interest in Yeon's activities. The security monitor and even Yeon's husband seem to be okay with watching, almost like they see the benefit and even approve of her extreme playacting. Again, it seems like Kim is sending us a positive message. Maybe what he's saying is we all need a vacation, even if it's to a visiting room filled with colorful wallpaper announcing the arrival of fall. That, and people should let their loved ones have vacations.
Or maybe it's not all rosy, because Kim still has a chance to bring Breath some cynicism. There's complexity and a darkly humorous sensibility in how Kim arranges the film, creating characters that are perverse and unlikable, and yet engaging and sympathetic. Breath involves lots of repetition; each visit from Yeon brings a new season, plus new despair to Jang, and the pattern repeats up until the unexpected, quiet end. When it's all over, it's curious if the film really does make its aims clear, but there's emotional substance in the moments and in the wounded performance from Zia, who adds layers that the sparsely worded script doesn't communicate. Ultimately Breath manages to affect without really doing very much, using its quirky black humor and glimmers of small hope to speak volumes that may not really be there. For audiences - and even for the film's characters - the experience may be more about what is individually taken, rather than what is explicitly given. (Kozo 2007)
Posted by Edward Hugh at 7:40 AM