Soom / Breath (2007, South Korea)

Breath - Chen Chang as Jang-jin... in a redecorated visit room

Some prison films are prepared to sacrifice almost any correctional principle for the convenience of the storyline or to accommodate the filmmaker’s artistic vision. This is one of them, I’m afraid, and I struggled with it as a result.

Yeon (Ji-a Park), is a sculptor and a depressed mother of a young girl. She has discovered that her husband is having an affair. Around the same time, TV reports tell of a prisoner on death row, Jang-jin (Chen Chang), having attempted suicide for a second time. On impulse Yeon sets out for Hansung Prison (filmed at the old Seodaemun Prison, it seems), intent on reaching out to him.

And it’s here that it starts to get tricky. It’s not visiting time. There are no other visits taking place. She asks to see Jang-jin and is asked what relationship she is to him. “Ex-girlfriend,” she lies, and they know it. She is refused entry… but the warden, watching her on CCTV, sees how dejected she looks and relents. Hmmm. She is allowed a non-contact visit, separated from the killer by a glass partition. She has a message for him: she drowned once, and died for 5 minutes… death is nothing to be afraid of. Jang-jin says nothing throughout; he has attacked his neck with one sharpened toothbrush too many and has damaged his vocal cords. Or he just doesn’t like speaking.

In fact, muteness is a bit of a theme. Yeon, who can speak, literally says nothing to her cheating husband (until the final scene), and even plays with her daughter in a sad silence. The mute Jang-jin has trouble making things clear to the three other occupants of his cell; he doesn’t have the words to reject the advances of one gay cellmate, and as the others become jealous of his visits with Yeon, he has no way to respond to their pettiness (other than splashing them with his blood, which may not be entirely intentional). It troubles me that nothing at all seems to be allowed in the cell except the four prisoners… and the sharpened objects with which Jang-jin keeps stabbing himself.

It must be said that Yeon’s visits are worth getting jealous over. Once she was catatonic, but in prison she comes alive! Having being allowed in that first time, Yeon is permitted to have regular face-to-face visits – and to bring in giant rolls of life-sized photographs with which she papers every wall of the visit room, taking care to cut perfectly around door handles and the CCTV camera. She is also allowed to bring in assorted props – flowers, a fan, a vase, a blow-up water toy, tablecloths and a karaoke machine. She decorates the room with joyful scenes from, in turn, Spring, Summer, Autumn… and, dressed for the appropriate season, serenades Jang-jin with seasonal pop songs. The warden watches on via CCTV from his office, tapping away in time.

The prison demonstrates a remarkably liberal attitude to this blossoming relationship between a very strange married woman and a prisoner who has killed his wife and two daughters. At her final visit, she is allowed to make love to him (while he remains handcuffed), and the guard in the same small room doesn’t intervene. He even appears reluctant to intervene when she tries to cheat the executioner by taking all of Jang-jin’s breath away, hoping that he might drift away while still basking in carnal afterglow.

It’s a film of dramatic visual contrasts – from the starkness of the prison cell, the muted colours of Yeon’s modern home and the wintry Seoul suburban landscape to each transformed visit room with its explosions of colour. Is there a prison system in the world that would allow a visitor to paper its visit room? I don’t think so. At a stretch, one could contend that her eccentric behaviour is tolerated because it helps keep Jang-jin alive until his execution… but it’s a big stretch.

It’s certainly an unconventional love story. I have no doubt that others will find it allegorical or tongue-in-cheek; that it matters not whether the prison operates like a real prison – that it is irrelevant to the story’s colour and romance and passion and emotional pull. But it matters to me.

Breath #2 - Ji-a Park as Yeon and Chen Chang as Jang-yin Breath #3 - Chen Chang as Jang-jin and Ji-a Park as Yeon

Posted on March 14th, 2013 at 8:36 pm. Updated on March 14th, 2013 at 8:36 pm.

#187 in the Top 500

One Response to “Soom / Breath (2007, South Korea)”

  1. August 10th, 2013 at 10:13 pm
    Tracey says:

    I watched this because of the Director Kim Ki-duk (and yes because it was South Korean). Funny thing was this was touted as a tender romance…Really??? A little bit of trivia for you…Kim Ki-duk’s most acclaimed film to date is ‘Spring,Summer, Fall, Winter’ a theme that you see again in ‘Breath’.

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