Thursday, January 26, 2012

Kim Ki Duk's Breath - The Retaliatory Feminist Tale

Yeon (Park Ji-ah) is transfixed to her television news where Jang jin, an inmate on deathrow, is rushed to a hospital after yet another suicide attempt. It’s Jang jin’s second try while awaiting for his punitive comeuppance within a month.

Yeon, a neglected wife, is frustrated. She recently discovers that her husband (Jung-woo Ha) is having an affair. Her morbid introspection has brought her to a decision: she will enveigle a relationship with the news-worthy convict. She understands the repressive atmosphere of a prison. She lives in one. In the process, she also gets back at his unrepentant husband’s infidelity.

Prisoner 5796 Jang jin (Taiwanese actor Chang Chen) has curtailed his capacity to speak by self mutilating the voice box (larynx) of his throat every time he attempts to end his life. He shares a cell with peculiar beings: an artist who makes the prison walls his canvas; a massage therapist; and a younger guy who’s infatuated with Jang jin. One day, he receives Yeon, an unexpected visitor from left field who pretends to be his former girlfriend. Though he’s never met her before, he’s intrigued by her impetuous behavior. During her visits, Yeon depicts the changing of the seasons by painstakingly decorating the visitor’s room with thematic wall papers (she even recreates fall season at Seorak Mountain); sprucing azalea flowers all over, and even dressing up for the part. At the end of each visit, Yeon leaves him a photo which eventually gets stolen, torn to pieces inside Jang jin’s cell.

When Yeon’s husband gets wind of her activities (something that she doesn’t hide from him), he begrudgingly ends his extramarital ties. Will this stop Yeon from seeing Jang jin?

Director Kim Ki Duk weaves another enchanting tale that hooks you from the opening scene to its last frame. Like most of his flicks, the director muddles major details of the story and offers them in enticing bits much later as the story unravels. This keeps his viewer waiting with bated breath. Kim Ki Duk is one of my favorite auteurs. In fact, his works are on proud display in my DVD room. I have 12 of his 17 directorial efforts and was only too thrilled to get this copy four years after its international release.


Breath” isn’t as tight a narrative as his earlier efforts, but you can’t deny the artistic vision of the master director. There are a few holes in the story: why did Yeon’s husband deny her sexual advances if he indeed wanted to make a go of their relationship? How is Yeon able to beautifully wall paper the Hansung prison room every time she visits Jang jin? When Yeon and Jang Jin were finally able to consummate their inscrutable relationship, what explains Yeon’s demeanor of holding her lover’s breath? The scene, which eventually made the film’s title, baffles.

Chang Chen smolders. His every scene beckons and captivates. It takes a while to figure out the non speaking convict, and its easy to gravitate toward his character. We later realize that Jang jin was convicted for killing his wife and her children.

Kim Ki Duk curiously cameos as the “voyeur” who watches over the unseemly lovers in the confines of his security office. God complex, Mr. Kim? In the past, he has been accused of misogyny, but “Breath” is curiously feminist. Ji-ah perceptively depicts the unbeloved wife and provides the emotional crux of an otherwise disaffected narrative. In Yeon’s desperation, she wills to redress her marital inequity. But when we find her singing her heart out to entertain Jang jin, we feel her internal conflict. Some emotions are too potent to hide.

Park Ji-ah

Chang Chen

Chang Chen is a popular Taiwanese actor who has appeared in "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon", "Happy Together", "Three Times, and "Red Cliff". "Breath" is his first Korean movie.

Jung-woo Ha

Jung-woo Ha is the unfaithful husband.

Director Kim Ki Duk studied fine arts in Paris. He has directed 17 feature films including my favorite, "The Isle" and "Samaritan Girl". Am looking forward to finding his documentary "Arirang", "Dream", "Amen", and the intriguing "Real Fiction".

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