22 October 2009


The story of Kore-Eda Hirokazu's Air Doll at the Chicago Film Festival is a hectic one: announced even before the full schedule came out, if my memory serves, it's three screenings sold well until some five days before the first one was scheduled, when it was found that the print wouldn't arrive on time, and the film would be replaced with additional screenings of Dear Doctor, apparently because one Japanese film is as good as another. Then, at almost literally the last moment, the print arrived after all, and we who had our Air Doll tickets in advance got to see it, just like we'd intended. I'm pretty sure I'd rather have seen Dear Doctor.

The narrative hook is pretty damn simple: Pinocchio, except instead of a marionette, it's an inflatable sex doll named Nozomi (Bae Doo-Na) that comes to life one morning for no explained reason one morning. For the two hours following this awakening, we watch Nozomi slowly assemble an understanding of the world around her, piece by piece: first by mimicking the behavior of those she encounters on the street, later on in a more intuitive fashion, after she realises that she has quite unexpectedly grown a heart. Along the way she gets a job at a DVD rental store where she falls in love with her co-worker Junichi (Arata), and begins to find her owner Hideo (Itao Itsjui) increasing repulsive, for she knows that he could never think of her as anything other than a sex object, for indeed that seems to be the only way he knows how to interact with real women, let alone animate dolls.

If you'd have asked me walking out of the screening, I'd have told you that this was the worst damn movie I saw at the festival. I've mellowed quite a bit on that point, but it remains that Air Doll is frustratingly shallow, refusing to be about anything in particular. No, that's a lie: it's about a great many things, and it is horribly superficial about every one of them. First and above all, this is a story about the innocent coming to understand what it means to be a human, enjoying the tiny, exquisite details of touch and sight, sound and smell; and then, as the film progresses, to watch as that sensual innocence is inexorably replaced by a growing awareness of the painful realities of human experience: betrayal, death, sadness.

That's just keen: a lot of stories have touched on those subjects, and indeed a lot of them have touched on those subjects using a very similar narrative angle. In fact, that's kind of the problem: a lot of stories have done this, so it's not enough for a movie just to say, "Look, there's this sex doll that just came to life, and now is experiencing things! Does it not make you want to re-evaluate how you, yourself, experience things?" A movie also has to have a point, not to be too frank about it; has to have some insight into humanity deeper or at least more interesting than, "human beings experience things". The greatest of the many flaws of Air Doll is that Nozomi never really becomes a terribly compelling point of identification for the audience; it is at all points very unclear what exactly is going on in that mind of hers. Instead of feeling, by proxy, that sense of discovery, we are simply watching an essentially alien figure going through the process of discovery on her own, like scientific observers in a lab. The film is emotionally dead as a result, and even a bit cloying and cutesy, since as a result of everything else, Nozomi starts to feel a bit like a pixie, all bubbly and cute and absolutely empty (the hideously irritating, tinkly score by World's End Girlfriend, AKA Maeda Katsuhiko, adds a great deal to this cloying feeling).

Mixed in with that one big huge gaping hole in the center of the film are a bunch of little problems that keep it pinned to the ground even in those fleeting moments when Nozomi actually does seem to function as a sympathetic protagonist. Most of these come in the form of little feints towards meaning that never go anywhere interesting: the representation of sex in the film is probably the most notable of these, since it is of necessity an unabashedly sexual film. Yet Kore-Eda seems uniquely terrified of actually pursuing any kind of exploration of what it means for a literal sex object to develop self-awareness (the closest he ever comes is in an image that occurs twice, as first Hideo and then a great deal later Nozomi washes out the silicone sheath that functions as her genitalia). Imagine what Imamura Shohei or Suzuki Seijun might have done with the story of a living sex doll! But there's to be none of that here, in a film where either sex or female nudity is a fairly regular companion, with a nonetheless prim, even Puritanical resistance towards chasing the implications of its story.

Then there is the stumbling attempt to point out that Japan is become increasingly Westernised, an idea raised a few separate times but never explored; or the question late in the film, if unbridled innocence can actually be a dangerous thing to oneself and others in a world that is not itself innocent. And hell, there are some good old-fashioned nitpicks to be had: why can't Hideo tell that Nozomi is alive? Doesn't she look different to him, too? How is it possible that someone dressed in a sexy maid outfit with only the most bare-bones social skills can possibly get a customer service job? Nagging questions like these cropped up so often that I honestly started to wonder, for the first time in a life of watching Japanese films, if there was some cultural angle I was missing.

Hell, maybe that's it. Maybe it's a big old cultural misunderstanding. I, with my pushy Western approach to narrative, want there to be any kind of point to anything going on, or at least an emotional response to any of what's going, or hell, at least the sense that Kore-Eda had some thematic motivation for making this movie (I haven't seen his very well-received Nobody Knows or Still Walking, but if this is what passes for human observation in his eyes, I might have to pass). Instead, there's some very pretty cinematography by Lee Pin-Bing, who is known for such things, and a mechanically effective performance by Bae, as a being slowly getting used to such things as walking and talking. Outside of that, it's just... not "bad", not exactly. But excruciatingly pointless.



dfantico said...

No Tim; Imagine what it would be like in the hands of McG. "The recent exhibition at London's Tate Modern museum, 'Pop Life: Art in a Material World,' features in its final room an unusual collaboration between McG and Takashi Murakami: a four-minute film starring actress Kirsten Dunst singing a cover of 'Turning Japanese' donning a blue wig and bright pink skirt."

Stephen said...

That... was an extremely harsh 5/10 review.

Tim said...

Harsh indeed, upon re-reading. I was in a pretty bad mood when I wrote it; fatigue is a bad place to blog from.

NicksFlickPicks said...

And yet, I can testify to the extremely enervating, almost peevish-making power of Air Doll's peculiar and very protracted aimlessness.

JGV said...

I hardly think this was a harsh review! I just watched the movie and I couldn't agree with you more. In fact, I would like to extend your conclusions to a big chunk of the Japanese film industry--but that might perhaps be too ambitious.
I think, ironic way, Air Doll summarizes the Japanese experience with the outside world from the Meiji era and on more than anything else...
"Instead of feeling, by proxy, that sense of discovery, we are simply watching an essentially alien figure going through the process of discovery on her own, like scientific observers in a lab." Well put! I can only just slap on that quote of yours to a larger cultural assessment on the Japan in general with them adopting the western industrialization, weapons development and overall westernization.

Anyhoot, wonderfully short review! I'm glad to know I'm not the only one to be frustrated.

Francis Shoup said...

I just seen this last night. it's seemed like one of those movies that make you think about things afterwards. not sure what about though.

I felt the film struggled to find meaning, then I feel it was nozomi struggling to find meaning at the latter half of the film. then I thought it was about some question of mortality or immortality. then I guess it was about nozomi, though just an air doll, was able to make a small difference on the others in her life around her. The old man on the bench, the lady struggling with her age, or that other lady with the eating disorder, in the kind of cloying montage of the dandelion seeds carried by the wind landing on things.

We're never explained how or why air doll just suddenly comes to life one morning, how the other characters don't question how odd she is in situations. I know part of traditional Japanese belief is that even inanimate objects have some kind of spirit or soul, so I just guessed it was a cultural given.

it felt pretty ambitious in it's domesticness. I didn't feel so sour at the end.

I've noticed Bae Doona succeeding in these kind of roles though. Her character in Cloud Atlas might just be a more realized version of this character, and after watching an old kdrama "Someday", also plays a shut-in artist discovering what love is, etc.