According to an obscure ancient Chinese proverb, life is composed of four basic emotions: happiness, sorrow, pleasure and love. Co-writer-director Jieho Lee uses these ingredients as the structuring device for his first feature, crafting four interlocking stories that are meant to somehow show how each sentiment determine a character's life. In "Happiness," a milquetoast broker (Forest Whitaker) who has always played by the rules with little to show for it, overhears three of his high rolling coworkers talking about a fixed horse race. Convinced that the time finally has come to take one big risk, the broker impulsively takes out a loan with a shady bookie and places a $50,000 bet. When the horse unexpectedly breaks down during the race, the broker finds himself deeply in debt to a vicious gangster named Fingers (Andy Garcia). The hulking henchman that comes to collect on his behalf, however, turns out to be one of the broker's regular clients (Brendan Fraser), a mysterious, silent stranger who, instead of cutting of one his broker's fingers, hands him something he will soon need: a gun. In "Pleasure," we learn exactly how Fingers' enforcer knew what was in his broker's near future: He's clairvoyant. This handy psychic ability, however, wasn't enough to save a childhood friend from being killed in a brawl when they were young, and this failure to change the future he could see coming has since become a source of deep, fatalistic sorrow. He gets a chance to redeem himself when Fingers orders him to look after his wayward nephew (Emile Hirsh), and the kids gets into some serious trouble in a high-end whorehouse. In "Sorrow," a popular singer known only as "Trista" (Sarah Michelle Gellar) who also suffers from a childhood trauma -- she saw her father get hit by a car and die -- discovers that her sleazy manager (Todd Stashwick) has emptied her accounts and virtually sold her to Fingers in order to extricate himself from his own gambling debts. Fingers intends on sending Trista out on the road, working her half to death before her 15 minutes are up, and assigns his favorite psychic goon to keep an eye on her. But the now suicidal Trista turns out to be the one person whose future he can't see, and he finally feels liberated and in control of his own fate. Hoping to free her from Fingers' clutches, he hides Trista in his own apartment, where they become lovers. In the final segment, "Love," a heartsick doctor (Kevin Bacon) pines over the woman (Julie Delpy) he loved but lost to his best friend from med school (Clark Gregg). She's also a doctor who works with venomous snakes in hopes of finding a cure for hemophilia, and when she's bitten by a highly poisonous viper, he races to her side. She'll die if she doesn't receive a blood transfusion within the next 24 hours, and there's only one other person who can possibly save her life: Trista.
Lee deserves a lot of credit for attempt the same kind of complex story structure Quentin Tarantino made look so easy in PULP FICTION: Like Tarantino's interlocking stories, Lee's four segments occur achronologically and come full circle in a neat twist at the very end. But to close that circuit, he depends on several coincidences that beggar belief and test one's patience. Aside from demonstrating how liberation and change can occur even at the most dire turn of events, it's not exactly clear exactly what his overly ambitious drama is trying to say. leave a comment --Ken Fox