For a better experience on MUBI, update your browser.

Jigsaw Pieces: "Breath" (Kim Ki-duk, South Korea)

As discontinuous viewing increasingly becomes the norm and the slicing-up of films via image captures and video editing becomes a key part of the cinephilic experience, it seems more and more like history will be kind to Kim Ki-Duk, director of weak films and strong images. The Kim Effect—whereby the films are somehow less than the sum of their parts—has its inverse in the fact that his films are ready-made Tumblr fodder; like a pocket Bartlett's, they are endlessly (visually) quotable and yet inconsistent—if not downright repulsive—as single works. In short, films which appear to reveal all of their flaws in projection and all of their strengths upon closer inspection, which penalize a captive audience (usually by way of a lot of stuntish ugliness) and reward context-free perusal.
Case in point: Breath, a trifle (though not a slog like the last two-thirds of Dream, Kim's most recent feature to date) made up of strong conceits. What makes this even more unusual is that Breath is almost perversely schematic, consisting mostly of variations on a small set of good scenes; after about half-an-hour, it's pretty easy to figure out just exactly how and where any of one of those scenes will go. The first of these are the prison sequences—essentially silent, at least in terms of casting, acting and action—where four men share a cell: the first affectionate and child-like, the second bespectacled and endlessly etching pictures of naked women on the cell wall, the third a big lummox who practices amateur medicine, and the fourth a suicidal murderer played by Chang Chen. The second set are the domestic scenes, where a sculptor (Park Ji-ah) sulks while her husband (Ha Jeong-woo, dressed as though someone from The Sartorialist might ask to take his picture at any moment) does a piss-poor job of concealing an affair. The third involve a ritual Park begins to enact with Chang: she visits him at the prison, wallpapers the visiting room with blown-up photos evocative of a particular season, sings him a song (poorly though charmingly), shares a private story, kisses him, gives him a photo of herself, and then tears down the wallpaper after a guard escorts Chang out. This third set of scenes are tolerated / interrupted by a voyeuristic / sadistic / benevolent prison warden, played, in a typical bit of posturing, by Kim himself—never seen directly, only glimpsed as, uh, a reflection on a screen. Further schematics: 1) Park never speaks (or even does much besides scowl) in the domestic scenes, but is girlish and unguarded in the visiting room; 2) the other prisoners always steal the photo she gives to Chang after he goes to sleep; 3) the film essentially re-starts itself after an hour. Chang, in the meantime, gets around the fact that he's a Taiwanese actor in a Korean film by pulling the classic Tony-Leung-in-A-City-of-Sadness Trick and playing a mute character.
The transparent interconnectedness of these sets of variations only highlights how ill-defined Kim's intentions are. Though it's preferable to the blowhard bullshit of, say, Bad Guy, Timeor 3-IronBreath is more or less pointless—and yet, it's the Kim film I like the most because, paradoxically, it coheres the least. I'll tell you this: if asked to program a Kim series, I wouldn't show a single feature (okay, maybe Crocodile), instead cutting out scenes and shots and ordering them according to better plans: the prison scenes could be strung together into a great short; the shot where Park walks in on her daughter performing a dance routine in the living room and the little girl, embarrassed, grabs a teddy bear and strikes a more acceptable "child" pose could stand on its own; the visiting room scenes, stolen largely from Tsai Ming-liang, would be improved by removing all of the shots of the warden watching the would-be lovers via remote video. But maybe that's for some future, different cinema; for now, as Breath gets a belated release in Chicago, the best you can do is edit the film in your head.
I think you are in the process of becoming – a filmmaker. Please keep us posted when it actually happens.
I’m reminded of a bit of advice proffered by a mutual colleague when I asked him where I should start if I wanted to get into Kim Ki-duk: “Dude is a hack.” You mention the film’s blatant lifts from Tsai Ming-liang (who’s “inspired” Kim often), but I thought of quite a few other directors while watching this film, Fassbinder and Kiyoshi Kurosawa in particular. I feel like Kim has beaten you to your cut-and-paste approach to film exhibition, except that he’s using other filmmakers’ ideas for his mosaic rather than his own. While I generally think it’s bad practice to slight an artist for borrowing ideas (everyone borrows ideas), I’m having increasing difficulty finding ideas in Kim’s work that aren’t borrowed.
Christoph, You’ll be the first to know. Ben, Kim is certainly a hack, and there’s a pretty obvious Fassbinder / K. Kurosawa vibe he’s trying to transpose unsuccessfully here. But I still feel like there’s “raw material” here that’s good enough to possibly be shaped into a different film — and the film it’s actually shaped into is kinda pleasing if not all that great (which I guess is better than 3-Iron, which now strikes me as downright malignant).

Please to add a new comment.

Previous Features