Judge Clark Douglas once held his breath for an hour. Granted, he took breathing breaks every few seconds or so.
Love can take your breath away.
I haven't experienced many of the films of director Ki-duk Kim (only his memorable 3-Iron), so I was eager to check out the new DVD release of Breath and explore more of his work. The film tells a story that is fairly easy to follow, but the film is clearly more interested in mood, rhythm and exploring a variety of themes from assorted contrasting angles. As such, it will likely have a perplexing effect on the majority of those who see it.
The story: a married woman named Yeon (Ji-a Park, Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring) has just discovered that her husband recently had an affair. As a means of coping/getting revenge, she decides to strike up a romantic relationship of sorts with a complete stranger. A startling move, but not as startling as the fact that she has chosen a convicted murderer as the source of her passion. As Jang Jin (Chen Chang, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) approaches his execution date, he receives a series of increasingly amorous visits from Yeon, each accompanied by a lavish, seasonally-themed musical number.
For the bulk of its running time, we believe that Breath is the story of a passionate affair between a neglected housewife and a doomed prisoner. It's a natural reaction, as the film spends the bulk of its running time focusing on the relationship between these two. Even so, after a while it becomes clear—at least as clear as something can become in Kim's stained-glass kaleidoscope of a film—that the relationship is primarily being used as a springboard to explore the nuances of jealousy and frustration in the other relationships these two characters have.
Yeon's relationship with her husband is strained, to say the least. When he finds out how she is reacting to his affair, he becomes understandably distraught and doesn't understand why his wife would choose such an action. Having a revenge affair is one thing, but having this affair with a man who once murdered his wife and children? Watching the husband slowly transform from distant to distraught is quite compelling, even if the scenes devoted to this transformation are brief and infrequent.
Meanwhile, Jang Jin deals with a different sort of relationship in prison. One of his cellmates is a gay man who seems to have an immense amount of affection for the killer. The fellow inmate will often caress Jang Jin or cuddle up to him at night, actions that Jang Jin doesn't really respond to in any way. The gay inmate seems content enough with this until he witnesses Jang Jin actually responding to Yeon's romantic gestures. Jang Jin soon finds himself confronting his cellmate's increasingly reckless, dangerous jealous outbursts.
Breath slowly settles into a groove, offering a steady series of developments and variations on scenes that unfold in an almost musical manner (a notion accentuated by the intermittent performances of actual musical numbers). Kim toys with colors, repeated phrases and a rhythmic sense of editing to create an absorbing experience; one that feels as if it's on a very specific path even as it remains unrelentingly enigmatic. I still wasn't sure that I understood everything Kim was getting at by the time the credits rolled, but I did know that I had been treated to a cinematic experience that would linger in my mind for quite some time. Many viewers will (perhaps understandably) feel cheated. Those who value cinema that emphasizes ambition and artfulness over entertainment value will feel enriched. I fall somewhere in-between, but I don't regret spending 84 minutes with this elegantly crafted little picture.
The DVD transfer is exceptional, allowing viewers to fully appreciate Kim's gift for observant design details and purposeful color palettes. Detail is strong throughout, and darker scenes benefit from strong black levels. Audio is understated and a bit softer than the average track, but still sturdy. Extras include brief video pieces spotlighting the film's strong reception at the Cannes Film Festival and some interviews with the director.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Tartan Video
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