A prisoner on death row and a woman who’s drawn to his plight go through their own spring, summer, fall and winter of love in “Breath,” a typically quirky chamber drama by helmer Kim Ki-duk. One of the South Korean maverick’s sparest and most dispassionate works, though still marbled with weirdly comic and tender moments, this quietly affecting item will play best to Kim’s existing fan club rather than enroll many new members, with niche business in markets receptive to his pics. “Breath” opens locally April 26 and competes at Cannes the following month.
Though it’s a far less ambitious work than “Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter … and Spring,” his biggest international success to date, the movie shares the same fascination with seasons as an expression of spiritual and emotional development. Of Kim’s other 13 features, it’s closest overall to “3-iron” in its story of a taboo-breaking relationship that liberates each party, though the structure is very different, the sexes are reversed and pic is free of any explicit violence.
Jang Jin (Taiwanese thesp Chang Chen), who’s on death row, tries to commit suicide by stabbing himself in the neck with a sharpened toothbrush handle. The news is seen on TV by Yeon (Zia), a sculptress who seems to walk around in a permanently catatonic state.
Yeon, who lives in an immaculate, soulless apartment on the edge of Seoul, has a perky young daughter she adores and a boring husband (Ha Jeong-woo) to whom she never speaks. On impulse, she takes a cab to the prison one night, waits outside until dawn and then asks to see Jang, claiming to be his ex-g.f. She’s let in only when the prison’s CCTV operator (an unseen, almost divine presence) overrules the main gate’s guard.
Their meeting is entirely taken up by Yeon’s confessional about how, at age 9, she technically died for five minutes when she held her breath underwater on a dare. She tenderly tells him not to harm himself any more, and leaves.
It’s the first of several scenes in which Yeon pretty much has to carry the picture in the face of Jang’s total silence (perhaps explained by his throat injury, though more practically by the fact that Taiwanese thesp Chang speaks no Korean). In contrast, at home, Yeon’s husband carries all the dialogue and she remains mute.
In the most off-the-wall development, Yeon “themes” her subsequent visits by season, bringing wallpaper and other accoutrements to decorate the visiting room and entertaining Jang with a seasonal song each time. As each visit ends in closer physical contact — like a year’s relationship compressed in time — Yeon’s husband becomes suspicious.
Characters’ backgrounds are never fully explained, though it eventually becomes clear that Yeon and Jang never knew each other prior to her first visit and that her action was a rebellion of sorts against her husband. The crime for which Jang is to be executed is also only revealed near the end.
But “Breath” is not about criminality. And a paucity of background and character motivation is hardly new in Kim’s movies, in which the main, obsessive relationship has always existed in a vacuum and demands the viewer go along with it on its own terms. Here, it’s set within a rondo structure, with a handful of locations (Yeon’s apartment, Jang’s cell, the prison meeting room) revisited time and again as the relationship progresses.
One character who doesn’t fit dramatically in the emotional jigsaw is a young cellmate (Gang In-hyeong) with unreciprocated homosexual yearnings for Jang. These scenes just don’t ring true, and detract from rather than add to the central triangle. The CCTV operator is also more of a convenient script device than a fully realized, omnipotent character, shaping the protags’ relationship.
Monomonikered Zia — billed as Park Ji-ah in Kim’s “Spring, Summer” and “The Coast Guard,” in which she had small roles — is terrific as Yeon, with an unconventional face that perfectly conveys hidden depths of hurt. Hou Hsiao-hsien favorite Chang does his best with a mute role, while Ha (from Kim’s “Time”) is OK as the boring husband.
Lensing by “Time” d.p. Seong Jong-mu is ultra-clean and precise, the wintry palette enlivened by vivid splashes of color in Yeon’s themed sessions and softened by the gentler colors of her apartment. Snowbound finale, set to a Korean version of ’60s French pop idol Adamo’s “Tombe la neige,” manages to be upbeat and cynical at the same time: closure obtained by everyone, but at a price.