It's no secret that I have little affection with Korean cinema. It's just not my cup of tea. But among the rubble of popular Korean cinema there's a true cineast pumping out brilliant cinema at a dazzling rate. Kim Ki-duk is a regular arthouse favorite and rightfully so. This weekend I had the pleasure of watching his latest effort on the big screen.
So far, I've seen all of Ki-duk's films. Over the years he's made little changes to his success formula, only visually his films have become a lot more mature. Breath continues this tradition, ignoring the little misstep of his previous film Time. Ki-duk reaches back to his "quiet cinema" and with success.
Breath [Soom] has it all. Troubled characters, little dialogue, rough around the edges and strange happenings. But underneath that barren surface lies a more subtle, warm interior. Not exactly new, but it's the first time Ki-duk plays with this emotion so openly and the change of heart is notable throughout the film.
At its core, Breath tells the story of four broken characters. No director that is more able to create a setup where unlikable characters can win the sympathy of an audience. Because not a single one of the characters in Breath is free from sin. The prisoner killed his wife and kid, his fellow prisoner hurts him because he can't express his love, the mother cheats on her husband with the prisoner and the husband mistreats his own wife and has a flirt on the side. And thus starts a story of a love between four people.
Ki-duk brings his characters alive with rather unknown actors, though they are really some of the best modern Asian cinema has to offer. Especially Chen Chang bring a lot to this film, adding yet another strong film to his impressive list of acting jobs. Chang's wife is also very strong in her role, hardly speaking but playing her emotions instead of telling them. Class-A stuff.
Visually, Ki-duk is still improving with each film. While his earlier films were too unfinished to be considered visually impressive, his newer work has this delicate touch that enters every shot. Ki-duk's timing is also improving, and his eye for interesting compositions is still functioning rather well. The film is never absolutely stunning but the quiet, subtle images bear well with the rest. He matches his visuals with a soundtrack that enhances this delicate feeling.
As an interesting surprise, Ki-duk inserts several musical intermezzos. He also revives his seasonal structure and couples a song to each season. The happy mood coming from those scenes is in sharp contrast with the actual feelings of the characters. A nice addition that brings relief, but at the same time hurts just as much.
I guess Breath is a little more playful than his previous films overall. There's of course Ki-duk himself playing director behind his screen in prison. It's an interesting extra layer that made me smile when I noticed it. And it leads to a strong scene where he cuts from the love scene in prison to the father and kid playing outside in the snow. I also liked the "acted" musical intermezzos, which add a second level of acting. Beautiful scenes with very contrasting feelings.
Breath is a strong entry in Ki-duk's ever-growing list of films, positioning itself among his best work. While progress between his films is slow and his work hardly brings anything new to the table, his unique position in the world of cinema makes this of little importance. He keeps improving himself and Breath illustrates this well. This is a truly awesome film. Breath may not really my preferred kind of cinema and because of that Ki-duk's accomplishment is all the more impressive, for making me love this film and its characters.