The Air I Breathe is an ingenious contraption that holds your attention for as long as it whirs and clicks like a mechanized Rubik’s Cube. After it’s over, however, you may find yourself scratching your head and wondering if there was any purpose to this sleek little gizmo.
The debut feature of Jieho Lee, a Korean-American director and screenwriter who, in the production notes, calls it a reflection of his “journey as an Asian-American” in a “bimodal world,” The Air I Breathe smothers in its own pretensions. Among other things, Lee declares, it is a film noir variation of The Wizard of Oz and an exploration of the theme of character as destiny. Whew! That’s an awful lot of concepts for one movie to juggle.
A hard-boiled allegory that consists of four vignettes whose characters bleed from one episode into the next, the film was inspired by a Chinese proverb that divides life into four categories: happiness, sorrow, pleasure and love. Three of the four vignettes feature an unnamed character, portrayed by a star, who represents one of the basic feelings. (But what about anger, an emotion that is plentiful in a movie with very little pleasure and little or no genuine happiness?)
What unfolds is a flashy example of the everything-is-connected mode of filmmaking embodied by movies like Short Cuts, Crash and Babel, but the connections in The Air I Breathe are paradoxical philosophic abstractions lacking geographic and cultural resonance. In the first episode, “Happiness,” Forest Whitaker — playing against type as a cowering milquetoast with a low-level banking job — overhears his colleagues planning to bet on a rigged horse race. Impulsively betting his life savings, he runs afoul of the scheme’s mastermind, Fingers (Andy Garcia), a gangster who mutilates debtors’ hands; his only hope of avoiding that fate is to rob a bank.
THE AIR I BREATHE
DIRECTED BY:JIEHO LEE
STARRING:BRENDAN FRASER (PLEASURE), SARAH MICHELLE GELLAR (SORROW), KEVIN BACON (LOVE), FOREST WHITAKER (HAPPINESS), EMILE HIRSCH (TONY), ANDY GARCIA (FINGERS), CECILIA SUAREZ (ALLISON), JULIE DELPY (GINA)
RUNNING TIME: 97 MINUTES
TAIWAN RELEASE: TODAY
In “Pleasure,” Fingers’ soft-spoken hit man (Brendan Fraser) is instructed to take his boss’s hotheaded young nephew Tony (Emile Hirsch) out on the town and show him the ropes. While night crawling, the henchman, whose talent for seeing into the future is prized by his employer, has ominous flashes of how the evening will end; unexpectedly, his visions don’t pan out. Rid of a gift that has also been a curse, he experiences the same giddy sense of liberation as Whitaker’s reckless gambler and bank robber.
In “Sorrow,” Sarah Michelle Gellar plays Trista, aka Sorrow, a terrorized pop star who becomes Fingers’ property after he buys her contract to settle a debt. Fraser’s character, a thug with a soft spot, impulsively hides her from Fingers and falls in love with her against his better judgment.
“Love,” the final episode, stars Kevin Bacon as a doctor who desperately tries to save the love of his life (Julie Delpy) — who happens to be his best friend’s wife — after she is bitten by a poisonous snake and requires a transfusion of a rare blood type. Circular in structure, the movie, to make its final connection, returns to Whitaker’s character in a delirious life-or-death moment.
The film’s most fully realized characters are Garcia’s cold-blooded killer (this is his strongest screen performance in years) and Hirsch’s gun- and girl-crazy nephew. Because Fingers pulls the plot strings in all four vignettes, The Air I Breathe ultimately registers as a gangster movie with delusions of grandeur.