Fri, Jan 15, 2010 - Page 16 News List

FILM REVIEW: Happy ending?

‘Air Doll,’ a movie about a sex toy who becomes human, is an exquisitely executed meditation on urban solitude and the plight of women as disposable playthings

By Ho Yi  /  STAFF REPORTER

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Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda is known to the world for his humanist creations such as After Life (1998), Nobody Knows (2004) and most recently Still Walking (2008). At first glance, Air Doll, his latest feature, may seem a bit too titillating for the director’s taste. Based on a 20-page graphic short story by manga artist Yoshiie Gouda, the film is a dark modern fairy tale about a life-size inflatable doll who takes on a life of her own.

Sex is definitely there, both in human and sex-doll terms, but Air Doll is more of a poetic meditation on the human condition punctuated with charming humor and heart-rending despair. Polished and structurally diffused, this rather ambitious film touches on many weighty issues. It is part of the work’s charm but also a flaw as the director seems to hover tentatively over eroticism, feminist allegory and the paucity of

human emotions.

Set in an old Tokyo neighborhood, the film opens with middle-aged Hideo (Itsuji Itao) sinking into the seat of a commuter train, looking worn out. A disgruntled waiter by day, Hideo leads a perfectly happy life at home with Nozomi, an inflatable doll. He tells her everything, bathes her, has sex with her at night and says goodbye to her in the morning.

One day after Hideo leaves for work, the doll starts to blink and morphs into a real woman (Bae Doo-na). Arrayed in a French maid’s outfit, the new Nozomi begins to explore the real world with the innocent curiosity of a small child. As she makes her way through the old quarter, Nozomi comes across a cavalcade of lonely folks as empty inside as her plastic body.

Nozomi soon develops a parallel existence away from Hideo’s apartment by having a daytime job at a small video-rental store where she falls for fellow worker Junichi (Arata). In the evening, she returns home to play the inanimate doll for her master.

Nozomi tries to find meaning in her newly found existence, but even visiting her maker, Sonoda (Joe Odagiri), doesn’t seem to help much. As a sex doll with a heart and mind, Nozomi experiences the joy and pain of being human but realizes that the parallel lives she leads may be incompatible.

Air Doll has all the elements needed for a cinematic musing on urban anomie and solitude — a heroine who is replaceable, an eerie, dreamlike electronic score, and an atmospheric locale provided by a run-down neighborhood nudged between ominous high-rises. Even the video store Nozomi works at is a symbol of a culture where images take precedence over real experiences and DVD copies over original film prints.

For his modern fairy tale, Kore-eda gathers a variety of characters to fill in the rather thin narrative and illustrate how empty most people feel inside. Aided by the crystal-clear visuals of Taiwanese cinematographer Mark Lee Ping-bin (李屏賓), the film exudes lightness and buoyancy, but sometimes lets the poetry run too wildly and the narrative weight diffuse. Consequently, the “we are all alone and hollow” spiel mostly falls flat. Not even the doll’s simple rhetoric on humanity and the orations of an old poet can redeem the film’s existential musing from being as hollow as the protagonist and cute as a children’s book.

Beneath the yarn’s limpid surface, an undercurrent of eroticism bubbles and threatens to erupt at any minute. That the film is about a sex doll makes it Kore-eda’s most erotic creation to date. Erotic tension is indeed felt throughout the movie, though the director doesn’t flirt with the sexual subtext. Examples can be found in the two scenes where Nozomi or her owner scrub her detachable vagina in soapy water rendered in a matter-of-fact manner.

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