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In Dancer in The Dark, Lars von Trier told the story of a girl who could create such a vivid interior life that it could soar over any misfortune, even death. In Breath, Director Ki-duk Kim tells the story of a girl who tries to transfer a similarly strong vision to a condemned man on death row.
What do you do to raise your spirits? Listen to a song? Walk through the countryside? Go on holiday somewhere nice? Take any of these things, and they are heightened if love and desire are added.
When I was seventeen, I used to walk five miles every night. Just to hold my sweetheart's hand and kiss her goodnight. Even in winter, I felt as if I were walking on air. Sounds kinda stupid, looking back. Especially as it didn't last. But those miles disappeared in seconds.
Breath opens unremarkably. Jang Jin is on death row and attempts suicide by sharpening a toothbrush and stabbing himself with it. (He's played by Chen Chang, the sexy outlaw suitor to Zhang Ziyi in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.) The incident makes the evening TV news.
Yeon's husband is having an affair. He tells her to get out and meet people instead of staying at home making sculptures. On an impulse, she goes to visit Jang Jin. On a subsequent visit, she decorates the visiting room with blown-up pictures of spring, fills the area with artificial flowers, and sings to him. She wears a summer dress even though it is mid-winter. Yeon's poetry of life has a profound effect on Jang Jin. They fall passionately in love. But trouble brews from Jang Jin's jealous cellmates and Yeon's violent husband.
When Breath started, I admit I found it less than engaging. But suddenly these scenes that Yeon constructs for Jang Jin explode with a powerful emotional force. Have you ever been on one of those simulator machines where you step in and it starts moving about, replicating sensations that match the screen in front of you? It's that sudden. One second you are watching an ordinary prison drama, interspersed with inconsequential domestic stuff. Then Wham! You are suddenly catapulted, knocked sideways, jolted out of your seat. And that, of course, is a pale reflection of the effect we realise it must be having on Jang Jin. We start living for these intense (yet emotionally draining) moments in the film, just as Jang Jin does.
Throughout precisely architectured cinematography, Ki-duk Kim weaves a poetry of life and death. "We are already crazy inmates on death row. Until we can breathe no more." Contrasts between the two protagonists' lives outside the meeting room and what goes on inside are mirrored in verbal contrasts where one person will speak and the other stays mute. Breathing in and breathing out. Locked in a passionate kiss. Or holding one's breath underwater.
Breath also has a bitter edge. Is she preparing him for the moment when he takes his last breath? (South Korea is one of the very few fully developed democracies where the death penalty is still allowed.) Don't expect any nice redemptive ending. Like Dancer in The Dark, Breath mostly gets darker. "Even though I call with sorrow, Only the white snow falls." It may also be too laboured even artificial for some audiences.
Breath is an icy, chilling love story. It looks at a bond that goes beyond the simplicities of life and death. And it's as finely chiselled as a piece of sculpture. Some scenes contain a rare combination of animal intensity and poetic tenderness. The whole unfolds as a dazzling testament to the artistry of Ki-duk Kim.
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