Kim Ki-duk's eyes gleam with concentration as he surveys his actors taking their places for the final scene of Breath, the director's 14th film. It is a freezing cold day in Seoul and Kim is shooting in a former Japanese colonial prison where Korean independence movement fighters were once tortured in their cells.
Shot in just 10 days, Breath tells the story of a death-row inmate who falls in love with another man's wife. She has recently discovered her husband's infidelities, and is captivated by the prisoner, who has stabbed himself in the throat as he awaits execution.
Although lighter in content than some of the director's notorious films such as Bad Guy - which depicted a man kidnapping a woman he has fallen in love with and forcing her into prostitution - Breath's production nonetheless has been controversial, following Kim's disparaging public remarks back in August about local film-goers' tastes and Korean distribution.
He had declared he would stop making films in Korea if Time - his love story about cosmetic surgery that opened the Karlovy Vary film festival last year - did not see more than 200,000 admissions. The film clocked up only 30,000 ticket sales but Kim says he was satisfied enough with the release - which was handled by arthouse distributor Sponge - to continue making films.
'Pre-sales happen almost automatically for his films'
Budgeted at $500,000, Breath will be released by Sponge in Korea on April 19. It was co-financed by Kim Ki-duk Film, the director's production company, and sales agent Cineclick Asia, which recently merged with Fantom Entertainment. Kim financed his half with profits from his other films, and most of the crew worked for minimum wage.
'We have an estimated 90-minute running time and 80% of the film is set in this prison, but there was still plenty of hardships getting it in under budget,' says Kim.
Cineclick Asia put up its half of the budget knowing it would recoup the investment through pre-sales. 'Kim Ki-duk has a steady following around the world,' says vice-president Young-joo Suh.
'Pre-sales happen almost automatically for his films. We have distributors in Europe, for instance, who have been handling his work for years. It's more a matter of choosing who would do the best distribution than finding interested buyers.'
On the basis of the director's reputation and a synopsis, Cineclick started pre-sales on Breath at last year's American Film Market, closing a range of deals (see box, above). More pre-sales were closed at Berlin's European Film Market and the Hong Kong Filmart.
At press time, the Cannes selection committee had yet to view the film, but working with French distributor ARP, Suh expresses strong hopes for the film.
'You can't predict what's going to happen'
Breath is notable for its cast, particularly Taiwanese heart-throb Chang Chen, whose credits include Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hou Hsiao-hsien's Three Times. The star, who had previously expressed an interest in working with Kim, plays the silent inmate.
'This is the first time I've worked with a director who has such an unpredictable style,' says Chang. 'He has given me a challenging character that couldn't be put into words in a script, but he managed to gradually draw me into his cinematic world.'
The film also reunites Kim with up-and-coming actor Ha Jung-woo, who starred in Time. 'Working with director Kim is like being in a sports match,' says Ha. 'You can't predict what's going to happen and everything can change depending on the day's circumstances - the weather, the mood, the atmosphere.'
Ha plays the wandering and neglectful husband to Park Ji-Ah, as his wife, who he eventually learns to take care of again. Park has worked with Kim on films including The Coast Guard.
Today, on set, she is singing a song of farewell to her imprisoned love as he embraces her, and is eventually wrested away by her husband and walked down the long corridor of the jail.
The elegiac feel of the scene is reminiscent of 3-Iron, which the director references when talking about the genesis of Breath. 'I had a prison scene in 3-Iron which made me want to shoot a film set entirely in a prison. And I wanted to portray the breathing of this woman and these men, the steady inhaling and exhaling in the way of yin and yang, night and day.'