When you talk about immersive movie experiences, Friday night at Eastern State Penitentiary is about as close as you can come. Hidden away underneath the prison’s watchtower, around twenty people nestled together within the cylindrical room to screen Breath, a 2007 South Korean film directed by Ki-Duk Kim. Walking through the long corridors and empty cells provided a perfect backdrop for a film whose primary location is also a prison. Adding to the gothic aura, a bat happened to make an appearance, flying around the room during the film’s first twenty minutes.
Aaron Mannino put the event together, a fellow Cinedelphia writer, Asian film enthusiast and journalist. Inspired by asian film from director Akira Kurosawa at a young age, he was turned onto Ki-Duk Kim’s work in his critically praised film Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter and Spring. It was only a matter of time until Mannino found Breath. “At the time that I saw it I was really itching to share a film publicly. It seemed like something that was possible,” he said. “I had some friends that were doing it and at the time, I saw this film and thought it was absolutely amazing and thought I can’t believe no one is distributing it.”
Breath focuses on a woman whose husband is openly cheating on her. In her shame, sadness, and anger, she visits a prisoner on death row, who has repeatedly attempted to kill himself. With each visit the two begin falling in love, both succumbing to weakened human emotion. She sings about the changing seasons, wears dresses amidst the winter weather, and leaves the inmate desiring her more every time she visits. The relationships are complex and fully dependent on subtleties. The woman has a life changing experience she guards closely; the inmate has a mysterious friendship with another prisoner, all under the watch of a secretive surveillance guard.
The film becomes more layered as it progresses, getting deeper and darker as we try to understand character motivations. There is little dialogue, and this is both a challenge and a masterful ambiguity, trying to find cohesiveness and predications for actions we may not totally understand. It is then reliant upon expression and imagery, a narrative not told but seen in character’s eyes and through the director’s artful lens. Kim captures the restraint and unspoken emotion with intimate filmmaking, demonstrating distance or closeness through his framing and careful, implicating choreography.
“It was a perfect form fitting function, a film taking place in a prison, shown in a prison,” said Mannino. “I know they’re [ESP] really receptive to art and that’s another component of the film, which is a woman coming into a prison and creating art inside of a prison, and so it seemed like another perfect reflection of where the film would be shown, a prison that houses artwork.”
I’m sure Ki-Duk Kim would be pleased to know that art infiltrating a prison stretched far beyond the insular film world of Breath on Friday.