The Air I Breathe

Jieho Lee

Since the inspiration for director Jieho Lee’s feature film debut The Air I Breathe derived from the Chinese proverb categorizing the four pillars of life into (as IMDb notes) the “emotional cornerstones” of happiness, pleasure, sorrow and love, it seemed only fitting that his work reminded me of another ancient Chinese proverb dictating that if you save’s another person’s life, you are responsible for it.

Formatted into four distinct vignettes that-- in true Altman and P.T. Anderson fashion-- overlap in surprising ways throughout the course of the picture, Lee’s usage of his four primary emotions that are even echoed by some characters which share the same names, are constantly evolving. While each twenty to thirty minute segment is introduced with the corresponding emotion, basically it seems as inconsequential as a name-card at a crowded wedding reception where people table hop at will, as ultimately in the hands of Lee and co-writer Bob De Rosa, they merge into one super emotion that isn’t quite "sorrowfully-happy-pleasure-filled-love" but—perhaps truer to life—one that seems to better fit our frequent transient states in the human experience as we go about our days surprised by several emotional ups and downs. Although of course, filmmaker Lee ratchets his character’s plots to overwhelming dramatic heights where lives are either cut short or given a second chance and the destiny of those involved in these decisions are thus forever entwined, holding all individuals accountable for each twist of fate or rash decision. And if it sounds incredibly ambitious, it is and it’s not always successful but one has to give Lee points for walking his talk.

Despite a clunky start that fails to separate Lee’s film from the rest of the trendy pack of independent vignette works using any random connective tissue to overlap the lives of a seemingly diverse population of film characters as we’re introduced to a predictably pulpy noir inspired beginning which finds hardworking bank employee Happiness (Forest Whitaker) making a perilous bet on a horse race, we’re snapped to attention with a genuinely engrossing second storyline. In Pleasure, we encounter the emotion’s ironically corresponding namesake played by Brendan Fraser as the loyal, right-hand man of gangster "Fingers "(Andy Garcia), who according to the movie, earned the nickname because all he has to do is snap his terrifying fingers and Fraser’s Pleasure will strong-arm anyone at will.

What separates Pleasure from what ordinarily would be a typical noir cliché is his character’s peculiar ability to see the future, or-- even more frighteningly-- the ultimate destiny and death of those whom he encounters which makes him the handiest man to have on your side in a fight as he babysits Fingers’ immature, pig nephew Tony (Into the Wild’s Emile Hirsch). Soon he finds his gift at risk when he sees a poster of Trista (Sarah Michelle Gellar), a gorgeous singer to whom he’s attracted and realizes that not only can he not see into the beguiling young woman’s future but also feels a strange pull towards Trista, wondering if perhaps she is his own destiny. Fraser's character is so fascinating that I half-wished the film's entire four handed bridge game of Chinese proverbs would have been abandoned for a classic narration of Pleasure’s penchant for psychic premonition and the problems that are undoubtedly tied up within the questionable gift but Lee proved he wanted to explore several ambitious ideas with his first crack at direction.

Pleasure's instinct that Trista is his future proves to be an accurate assumption as Trista (who doubles as Sorrow in the film) finds herself bartered by her sleazy manager who trades her contract to Fingers in order to make good on an astronomical debt. Longing to escape the intimidation of Fingers who wants to milk his newest employee for all she’s worth like the cattle he considers her, Trista falls under both the protection and spell of Pleasure, embarking on a dangerous romance before her journey eventually leads to a fourth unevenly tacked-on segment involving crusading doctor Kevin Bacon who struggles to save the life of his married college sweetheart Julie Delpy at all costs.

Unfortunately, the film’s final act doesn’t quite fit the noir mold that Lee perpetuated with the nearly monochromatic color scheme and brooding tone for more than the film’s first hour and does slightly pull one out of its darkly seductive allure as a modern day homage to classic German expressionist influenced American noir works of the 1940’s, largely because the majority of the finale is filmed in predominant sunlight. And, given the genre, in the harsh light of day, Air's flaws along with its ability to cloak its shortcomings in noir style become glaring to the viewer.

However, it’s still a highly compelling film where earlier actions build on one another in unexpected ways and also one where-- more than just using the four emotions as a convenient structural device-- responsibility and accountability comes into play with the lives that are spared, making it a worthwhile proverbial Chinese puzzle to be solved for movie lovers who are game for viewing something out of the ordinary on DVD.

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