Ki-Duk Kim has done it again. The South Korean writer/director is best known universally through his 2003 minimalist, Buddhism-inspired fable 'Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring' and once again he demonstrates that with very minimal resources he can create a story at once complex and compelling in this new film BREATH. Not only are his ideas for film unique in the technical aspects, his concept of telling a story is always surprisingly subtle.
Jang Ji (Chen Chang) is on death row in a Korean prison for the murder of his family. He shares the bleak cell with three other prisoners, one of whom (In-Hyeong Gang) is young and obviously in love with and is very possessive of Jian Ji. Jian Ji attempts suicide and the media focuses on the transfer of the prisoner to the hospital where he barely survives his self-inflicted stab wound to the throat. One woman on the outside, Yeon (Zia - or Ji-a Park) watches the coverage on the media in silence (: she is married to a man (Jung-Woo Ha) who apparently is having an extramarital affair and pays little attention to her, finding Yeon's obsession with the prisoner 's exposure in the media this foolish and repulsive. They have a young daughter who observes the lack of interaction between her parents. Yeon is a sculptor and quietly works at her art, watching the coverage of Jian-Ji's plight. Something in her relates to the prisoner and she begins making trips to the prison where she sets up the visitor room with wall photographs, paintings and flower props that look like Spring. It is in this atmosphere that she meets the handcuffed Jian Ji and there is obvious exchanged compassion between them. She returns to the prison, each time to visit Jian Ji in a room she has transformed to Summer and to Autumn and with each visit she sings a seasonal song of love to him. The relationship becomes physical: of note, in a room behind one way glass a prison official (Ki-duk Kim himself, as though he were directing the romance) observes the trysts. Yeon finds evidence, a broach, of her husband's affair and confronts him: the husband explores the reason Yeon visits the prison and follows her, observing her passion behind the one way mirror. The husband parts with his lover, demanding Yeon do the same, and the last visit to the prison is a Winter scene where Jian-Ji and Yeon consummate their passion. The ending is a surprise to all and sharing that would spoil the effect of the film: the key is in the title.
Ki-Duk Kim weaves so many subliminal aspects into this film, a technique few other directors can match. He explores alienation, contemporary relationships between husbands and wives, prison tensions that result in other kinds of relationships, and again uses the cycle of season changes to mark the steps of his story. His cast is small and incredibly fine. This is a very small film with a very big message. It is a gem. Grady Harp, August 11