The Air I Breathe
Written by Edward Moran
Skeptics, rationalists, and assorted airheads will undoubtedly dismiss this film for its outlandish coincidences and time-warp manipulation (a bag of money thrown off a roof by a bank robber in the first vignette conveniently lands on top of the car driven by a needy singer in the final scene). But wait, hadn't she already colllided with the thief in the first scene when he was running out of the bank with the loot? "The Air I Breathe" is rife with this sort of thing: threads that run in unexpected directions, weaving a tapestry that can be a maddening maze or a marvelous mandala, depending on one's point of view.
I opt for the mandala. Jieho Lee's feature directorial debut, written in conjunction with Bob DeRosa, is a masterpiece on every level. The story is told as allegory inspired by a Chinese trope that sees human activity in terms of the permutations of four elements: Happiness, Sorrow, Pleasure, and Love. Each of the four vignettes is built around a character who embodies one of these. Their interactions across all four vignettes declare that human life is far more convoluted and interconnected than appears on the surface.
But "The Air I Breathe" is no mere Sunday School pageant in yellowface, There are scenes of brutal violence here. Fingers get amputated and good guys get slashed in gangland vendettas, kids die when rowdyism gets out of hand, aspiring young pop singers get gagged and bound out of jealous rage. But the spilled blood and guts only serves to remind us of the vividness and tenderness of human life and how people and events are inextricably connected on some deep visceral level.
Despite stunning visual effects and superb cinematography, it is the ensemble of characters that drive this film to the heights. Each of the four emotions is portrayed by a veteran actor who embodies his or her character to the utmost: Pleasure (Brendan Fraser), a gang underling who prefers compassion to mayhem; Sorrow (Sarah Michelle Geller), an aspiring singer who gets involved with the mob and is rescued by Pleasure; Love (Kevin Bacon), a doctor who goes the last mile to rescue a woman in peril; and Happiness (Forest Whitaker), a soul-starved bank clerk who stakes his life on a fixed horse race and achieves nirvana in a bold bank holdup.
All of the actors take a low-key approach to their roles: there are no divas here, or supernova performances--just acting at its rawest and best. They are always unself-consciously conscious of simply being themselves, of acting from some deep and brilliant reserve. Brendan Fraser offers a memorable performance as a complex, layered individual who can be both brutal and loving; Sarah Michelle Geller as a troubled but kindly soul who makes us want to bolster her fragility; Kevin Bacon as a healer who is relentless in his pursuit of the things and people he loves; and Forest Whitaker as the hapless Everyman who finds ultimate glory in letting go of what he thinks will rescue him.
Korean-born director Jieho Lee says that the film was provoked by his own journey as an Asian American "born into a bi-model world with often contradictory points of view." In his world, the atomic individualism of the West collides with the collectivism of the East to create a new isotope outside of our conventional time-space continuum. There are no bumbling Jimmy Stewarts here, and the scenes are not designed for schmaltzy Christmas Eve screenings, but "The Air I Breathe" is surely a candidate for "It's a Wonderful Life" in the twenty-first century, ratcheted up several notches. Quite a few, in fact.
Director Jieho Lee
Written by Bob DeRosa, Jieho Lee
Director of Photography Walt Lloyd
Edited by Robert Hoffman
Music by Marcelo Zarvos
Prodction Designer Bernardo Trujillo
Produced by Paul Sciff, Emilio Diez Barroso, Tai Duncan, Christopher Pratt
Released by ThinkFilm
Cast: Sarah Michelle Gellar(Sorrow)