In his debut feature, The Air I Breathe, Jieho Lee turns a Chinese proverb into a story that explores the interlocking fates of four characters, all of whom all are trapped in the grip, literally, of a violent gangster boss called Fingers.
The gangster drama with spiritual aspirations, shot in Mexico City, has a cast (Forest Whitaker, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Andy Garcia, Kevin Bacon, Brendan Fraser) that ought to pull in a wide audience. The film's success will hinge on whether the audience can ignore the august premise that life breaks down into four main emotions, and just enjoy it as a violent crime film. Asian interest for the Korean director's work should be strong.
The solemnity, pacing, production design and characters borrow much from Asian crime movies. The central premise also draws amply from western sources that range from Six Degrees Of Separation to Short Cuts.
The Air I Breathe tells four overlapping stories, each built around a key human emotion designated as a cornerstone of life - happiness, pleasure, sorrow, and love.
As Happiness, Forest Whitaker seems misnamed as a bored banker who overhears a fix on a horse race, bets with the benefit of inside information, and loses his shirt. When the gang led by the angry Garcia learns that he can't pay his debt, he's tortured as enforcer Pleasure (Fraser) looks on, and eventually robs a bank.
As fate would have it, Pleasure falls for Sorrow (Gellar), a pop star whose contract as come under the control of Fingers, who wants to move into the legitimate entertainment business. We first see her when Whitaker falls on the hood of her car as he's fleeing his pursuers.
When she resists Garcia's business plan, and hides out in Pleasure's apartment, the lovers get on the wrong side of Fingers, who fumes around in a rage once again. Pleasure, who has the improbable ability to see the future, should have known better.
As their destinies intersect, Love (Bacon) enters the picture. He's a doctor who has 24 hours to save the life of the woman he loves (Delpy). She needs a blood transfusion of a rare blood type. In case you haven't guessed, Sorrow has the same rare strain of blood. But Bacon is a hot-head - he's Love after all - and he gets himself arrested as he races to the hospital past a police roadblock.
In this parable of the interconnectedness of life - pretentious to a fault in a script co-written by Jieho Lee and Bob DeRosa, and directed with far too much solemnity - Whitaker is still excellent as a meek office-worker modeled on the Japanese or Korean mid-level salary man.
He acts as much with his eyes as with anything else, spotting what he thinks is a chance for a windfall, and witnessing the dreaded result of his wager as his future slips from his control. It's a fine performance.
Also tender in her role is Gellar, a star with a little bit of guile and a lot more vulnerability, whose career is high-jacked by gang managers.
Gellar can look radiant or despondent through the lens of Walt Lloyd, who has elevated The Air I Breathe above the generic gangster template with elegant close-ups and dramatic lighting.
Yet the film's visual coup for Lloyd and production designer Bernardo Trujillo is its transformation of Mexico City into Los Angeles, with clear streets and what (miraculously) looks like clean air. Why anyone would do such a thing, instead of shooting Mexico City's many intriguing locations for Mexico City, is anyone's guess. Perhaps there's another Chinese proverb to explain it.
Paul Schiff Productions
Emilio Diez Barroso
Sarah Michelle Gellar