This review has been ‘repurposed’ from my other site, theOneliner.com
While Chan Wook Park may be taking most of the plaudits coming from Korea’s current status as cinematic flavour of the month, Ki Duk Kim has been quietly knocking out intriguing minimalist little dramas for years longer. Soom, or Breath for us foreign devils, his latest to hit Blighty’s shores is one of his better efforts, although trying to explain precisely why this is the case does not well lend itself to glib soundbites.
Yeon (Ji-a Park) leads a quiet existence, seemingly still troubled by her husband (Jung-woo Ha)’s infidelity. As a result, there’s little in the way of conversation between them. After seeing a news report on convicted murderer Jang Jin (Chen Chang)’s attempt to off himself, she makes a slightly odd attempt to visit him. Despite this being against all statute the visit is allowed by a voyeuristic Warden who takes a fancy to Yeon’s looks. These visits turn into strange things indeed.
Allowed, for some reason, to redecorate the visiting room with vastly blown up photographs of charming summer scenes and wielding a karaoke machine to serenade Jang Jin with cheering songs, she seems to have taken it upon herself to give him something to live for. At least until he’s scheduled to die. Look, I never said it made a lick of sense, did I?
Initially Yeon doesn’t bother explaining where she’s going or what she’s doing on these visits to her hubby, which causes him no small amount of distress. Tailing her to the prison one day and, courtesy of the mysterious warden’s all seeing CCTV camera, discovering the awful truth that Jang Jin and Yeon have become as intimate as their circumstances, and the warden, will allow, Yeon’s hubbie then tries desperately to save his relationship and stop Yeon’s visits completely.
Meanwhile Jang Jin has to deal with the unusual to the point of defying any brief explanation relationship between himself and his three cellmates, particularly the weird guy that keeps hugging him and eating any photos Yeon supplies Jang Jin. Quite what any of these relationships are supposed to be representing in larger society I couldn’t tell you. Korea is a foreign country, they do things differently there.
This, on the face of it, wouldn’t seem to be a hell of a lot of content to fill up a ninetyish minute film, given that Jang Jin is channelling Bad Guy‘s protagonist and keeping his yap completely shut, and that Yeon spends the vast bulk of the film not speaking to her husband at all. It saves on the costs of subtitling and translating I suppose, so we should be congratulating Kim on his economy. As a welcome side effect, the scarcity of words make those that are present all the more powerful. Even those that don’t actually mean a hell of a lot, in the grand scheme of things.
The pacing of such a film clearly is vital, and as Kim displays the same masterful hand that’s seen him through previous efforts. At no point could anyone accuse Breath of being a thrill-a-minute actionfest, but the small revelations and little moments of drama that are present are parcelled out in such compelling metre that it’s tricky to tear your eyes from the screen, despite the now familiar refrain of this review that not much is happening at any given moment of the film.
The acting is uniformly above par but special mention ought to go to Chen Chang, as remaining interesting while saying very little is a difficult task that he pulls of with aplomb. Ji-a Park deserves equal plaudits, although if we’re being picky the simple fact that he’s the only one with significant dialogue sometimes makes Jung-woo Ha seem hysterical, although this is more of a structural problem than any wrongdoing on his part.
The cynical amongst us could be tempted to write off Breath as Kim-by-the-numbers, recycling themes and ideas from much of his prior art most notably Bad Guy and The Isle. When it’s done well, and Breath is done well, then it hardly matters. The only issue I can see people having with Breath is exactly the same that troubles Kim’s other work; it’s something of an acquired taste and certainly one that demands patience, the absence of which we frequently see complained of regarding modern audiences. It’s not going to do much for those in the mood for quick fix escapism, but if you’re in the market for something moody, brooding and intriguing then this fits the bill very well indeed.