A Chinese proverb provides framework for a breathtaking collection of vignettes

The Air I Breathe

on January 11, 2008 by Tim Cogshell

Of late, the critical profit in cinema has been found in the vignetting of narrative structures into multiple storylines, ostensibly—and sometimes actually—disparate little movies with seemingly separate narratives told by different protagonists or at least from different omniscient points of view. It's a mode found in such films as Crash, Babel, and Paris, je t'Aime, as well a number of others that precede the current vogue, mostly notably Krzysztof Kieslowski's Trois couleurs, which were actually three separate films operating under the same principle. In any case, when it works it's usually because the narratives are in fact connected, even if by the barest conceptual thread, if not actual characters and events. The Air I Breathe works this way, and for those reasons. Four segments are each narrated by its own symbolic protagonist character: Sorrow, Love, Pleasure and Happiness. They think about, comment on and reach into the other vignettes to inform them, themselves, and us.

According to the film, a Chinese proverb says we must experience these emotions in order to become complete. In fact, the proverb says we must "become" these emotions, and so Forest Whitaker is Happiness, Brendan Fraser is Pleasure, Sarah Michelle Gellar is Sorrow, and Kevin Bacon is Love. They are each potent forces living on the edge of the emotions they don't just represent but actually are. Which as it turns out results in compulsions of personality and behavior that aren't what you might think.

Happiness (Whitaker) gets in $50,000 worth of trouble at the track, which also puts him in trouble with Pleasure (Fraser), who has the ability to see the future. He is an enforcer for an ancillary gangster character called Fingers (Andy Garcia), to whom Happiness owes the money. Pleasure is sent to collect from Happiness, for whom he already knows what the future holds.

Meanwhile, Love (Bacon) is involved with a woman named Gina (Julie Delpy), for whom he will do anything— absolutely anything—to provide a transfusion of her very rare blood. Happiness commits a desperate crime to pay his debt. And Pleasure becomes involved with a pop star played with stark-raving emotional rawness by Gellar, whom anyone who watched Buffy knew was good (she did some great work on that overhyped repetitive vampire show) but likely did not know, from her work in the Scooby-Doo movies, had this kind of performance in her. She achieves here what Halle Berry captured in Monster's Ball.

The only irritant here is the tough-stuff gangster subplot that has Fraser beating up Whitaker and Garcia ranting on about chopping off fingers. All of this is provided for those who need genre elements to make sense of the more existential, emotional questions actually at issue. Whatever for those knuckleheads. Ignore all of that foolishness and watch the collision of emotions The Air I Breathe provides—it is enough all by itself to leave you breathless.

Distributor: ThinkFilm
Cast: Sarah Michelle Gellar, Kevin Bacon, Brendan Fraser, Forest Whitaker, Andy Garcia, Emile Hirsch and Julie Delpy
Director: Jieho Lee
Screenwriters: Jieho Lee and Bob DeRosa
Producers: Darlene Caamano, Emilio Diez Barroso and Paul Shiff
Genre: Drama
Rating: R for violence, language and some sexual content/nudity
Running time: 97 min.
Release date: January 25, 2008 NY/LA, February 8 exp.

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