Korean filmmaker Kim Ki-duk has a unique and disturbing way at getting to the core of complex and dysfunctional relationships. His "Bad Guy" is one of my favorite character pieces. Unrelentingly dark and extremely brutal, the film is a masterwork of nightmarish psychological suspense. 2007's "Breath" continues with many of the same challenging themes. Told very simplistically, this grim tale of obsession and compulsion has moments of tender sweetness amidst a very unhealthy central romance. Painting characters that are unrepentantly selfish, the film miraculously manages to make these thoroughly unlikable individuals compelling and oftentimes sympathetic. It's like a high-wire act that is balanced to precision and the film, while often distasteful or uncomfortable, is impossible to turn away from. I don't know that I loved "Breath" but I sure won't forget it! That, in itself, is reason enough to make this an easy recommendation for adult audiences.
The central characters are a suicidal death row inmate and a dissatisfied (and betrayed) housewife. When news of the inmate is televised, the young lady feels drawn to seek out a re-connection with the condemned man. The two had known each other in more innocent times, and visiting her former flame pulls her further away from an adulterous husband. Upon each visit, she sets an elaborate stage with flowers, wall treatments, and music to create an idealized oasis away from reality. The two become more and more intertwined, and yet each much ultimately confront the truth of their situation. The bond they share is alternately tender and creepy and the film uses this incongruity to create an almost hyper-real environment.
This sparse and straightforward film (it is only 84 minutes) doesn't rely on visual pyrotechnics or fancy effects--it moves up close to its human subjects in almost invasive ways. Intensely personal, but also emotionally aloof, "Breath" almost embraces a moral ambiguity. I think that it will affect different viewers in different ways and the narrative is open-ended enough to allow your own conclusion. I know that I've made the film sound bleak and depressing, but it is also infused with an unexpectedly macabre humor. The film is unpredictable and original. It may be a challenge, but it's a trip worth taking. I don't think, ultimately, the film is for everyone--but those that appreciate it, I suspect will really admire its achievement. About 4 1/2 stars. KGHarris, 8/11.