12 May 2007 | larry-411
Unique, thoughtful, and stunning -- a winner
The Air I Breathe is stunning in many ways. It should be established right from the start that this is not a movie which allows you to check your brain at the door. It demands attention and thought. Director Jieho Lee and co-writer Bob DeRosa have crafted an intriguing work which leaves more questions than answers. And, after all, that is what art should aspire to do.
The film is based on a Chinese proverb which says that life consists of four emotions: Happiness, Pleasure, Sorrow, and Love. To be whole one must experience each emotion, and by doing so we are interconnected with all other human beings. The film itself is structured in the same fashion, with each of four segments focusing on those ideas. The lead actors portray those emotions one by one. Forest Whitaker is Happiness, Brendan Fraser is Pleasure, Sarah Michelle Gellar is Sorrow, and Kevin Bacon is Love. They anchor the four segments of the film, while the rest of the magnificent ensemble cast weaves in and out of the narrative.
The idea is somewhat fuzzy at first. This is an unconventional story with a similarly unique style. Unlike most films, the major characters don't really have major arcs in story line or performance. While some may find a couple of the actors a bit deadpan, they pretty much are solid throughout while consistent in their characterizations. Whitaker and Fraser especially fit that description. Both are quite stoic in their roles, but that's what the story demands. Sarah Michelle Gellar may be the exception. She is the one who has to display a wide range of emotions, more than the others. Her character is quite tortured and goes through a lot emotionally and physically. Gellar is a very brave actress who took risks and put her heart and soul into it. She is sure to surprise many people. Bacon is a delight and is perfectly cast as a would-be hero. Andy Garcia is a chilling and devilish nemesis throughout, while Emile Hirsch provides some comic relief in his brief appearance.
The script is filled with poetic statements, hearkening back to the Chinese proverb on which the story is based. Each segment's main character provides voice-over. And while the language is somewhat oblique, the dialogue is quite blunt and to the point.
Visually it is breathtaking, with broad sweeping images interspersed with numerous gritty close-ups of tragedy. The Air I Breathe has the look of a big budget film, although it is not. Watch for some fascinating visual effects. Hand-held with close-ups is used for some of the more chilling parts and creates tension. Hitchcock would be proud.
Surprises occur at every step of the way. One of the most startling aspects of this film is that there are moments when one may think, "No, that won't happen." And then it does. It's hard to watch at times and quite violent. There's sadness and tension. But there is also an amazingly clever use of humor in the film, and that is perhaps what is most surprising. But that's what life is. The soundtrack plays a major role in this movie, as if another character. It has an Asian feel, not just because of the filmmaker's background but because the film is based on that Chinese proverb. It was quite haunting.
The Air I Breathe is, at its heart, a character piece which follows a general theme. Seems simple. On the face of it, it plays out like a crime drama. But there's more to it, and it takes patience and thought to get to the point of it. Not everyone will be able to do that. But it is definitely worth the effort.