Director Lee Jie-ho said he got his inspiration for the characters in his debut feature "The Air I Breathe", to be released April 9, while working as a music video maker in Korea.
The original Korean characters Lee dreamed up, however, are almost gone. Only traces of them are left, as high-profile American castings have taken up the roles in this allegorical thriller set in an unnamed American city. Also twisted is the Chinese proverb about four human emotions: happiness, anger, love and pleasure. For the movie, Lee replaces anger with sorrow.
The question is whether Lee's decision to change the shooting locations, hire top-notch Hollywood actors and tweak the theme has been on target in this unpredictable world -- a tricky topic that, ironically, the movie's crisscrossed plot deals with in connection with human limitations against fickle and interlocking fates.
The movie has four main segments, subtitled " Happiness ", "Pleasure", "Sorrow, and " Love ", and each vignette features a key character along with a subplot. All the subplots, of course, come into play, either pushing or pulling each other at one point or another throughout the film.
In " Happiness ", we see a hapless stockbroker (Forest Whitaker), who yearns for change in his bored, lonely life, a la the transformation of caterpillar into butterfly. His chance comes when he overhears his colleagues colluding in a rigged horse race -- with the supposedly fixed bet being on a horse named Butterfly. But this timid stockbroker faces an extremely uncertain future as his bet leads to a scary encounter with the mastermind of the scheme, Fingers (Andy Garcia). In "Pleasure", Fingers' hit man (Brendan Fraser) takes center stage. Fraser's soft-spoken yet tough character struggles with a mysterious ability to see the future -- but only in disconnected flashes.
His assignment is to guide the boss's foul-mouthed nephew around in the city, showing him the ropes. Things begin to go awry when the hit man's futuristic vision takes an unexpected course.
In "Sorrow", Trista (Sarah Michelle Gellar) also confronts something she never expects: a forceful contract with Fingers. It turns out that her manager has sold her to the gangster to settle a debt, and she is penniless. Worse still, has to serve the merciless thug, who is keen to expand beyond his money lending business into the glitzy world of showbiz. Again, the wheel of fortune turns. Tension rises and the plot builds.
"Love", the final episode, features a seemingly unrelated character: a doctor (Kevin Bacon) who desperately tries to save his beloved (Julie Deply) after she is bitten by a poisonous snake. The doctor, spotting Trista on television talking about her rare blood, rushes to get the blood for the poison victim; in the process, all the preceding subplots are woven together, underscoring the connectedness of characters and their fates.
Aside from the movie's peculiar circular structure that often stretches too far, many of the characters are not fully developed, especially considering the high-caliber cast. The most convincing one, though, is Fraser's cold-blooded gangster. Garcia's Fingers, whether he wants it or not, puts a spin on all the subplots in the four vignettes. Sadly, his character never veers from the obvious.
Although the movie's production is complete and already set to be released in Korea, the question remains: How different would the film have been if director Lee had set the movie in Korea, featuring local actors and incorporating more Korean elements?
By Yang Sung-jin