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Breathing Underwater

In Jeju Province, located off the southern coast of Korea, are the women of the sea who hold breath of life. Typhoons and the barren volcanic soil of the islands left the people enduring years of poor harvest and famine. For survival, women looked to the frigid sea. Haenyeos, women of the sea, still exist and they have been diving without air tanks for more than 1,000 years. They go into the waters of 10-to-20 meter depth to harvest seaweed and shellfish to make a living. They work from 7 to 8 hours a day without even a sip of fresh water. At the end of the day, they return with sumbisori, a whale-like noise at the near end of their breath.

They make a living in the same sea, but each has a different story. A mother and her daughters dive together, making themselves a third generation haenyeo. Another one started to diving to pay off the debts of her gambling husband. Many hold breath to support their children through school. A haenyeo continues her life at sea, despite having lost her daughter-a fellow haenyeo-to the sea. They have only one thing in common. All hold breath for life. For better life, they hold their breath as long as they can.

They community is divided into three tires - Group A, B and C, based on only one thing. The length of breath… One’s rank is determined by sum or breath. They believe sum is predetermined at birth. Group B shall never brave the waters of Group A. Every year, there are deaths due to mulsum or breathing underwater, refers to the water haenyeos drink when they run out of their own breath. It is the result of a failed attempt to push one’s limit. It represents a desire and temptation that could not be contained. Life, for these women of the sea, is about holding one’s breath, and containing and controlling one’s desire.

This film is a 7 year record of the lives of the haenyeos in Udo, an islet in the province of Jeju, known to be the birthplace of haenyeo. It is a close look into the lives of extinguishing strong women that stands on the boundary of life and death.