Cold hands, warm heart
Hirokazu Koreeda already gained critical acclaim with splendid features like ‘After Life’ (1998) and ‘Nobody Knows’ (2004). In his latest, Air Doll, Korean actress Du-Na Bae (‘Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance’ & ‘The Host‘) portrays an inflatable sex doll that grows a heart – technically, it’s something closer to a soul and a conscious – leaves her natural bedroom habitat and sets off into the city to discover what life has to offer (and very much unaware of it all). She finds her way to a video store. By far not the worst place to start with your first job.
(Mild spoilers follow…)
You’ll have to be willing to suspend your disbelief – oh, that overused phrase again – on several occasions, and I’m not even talking about the already surreal concept of an air doll coming to life. It’s mainly the questionable & often ignorant behaviour of many side characters you’ll have to be willing to fly with. Affection craving loner Hideo (Itsuji Itao), who named his doll Nozomi, does not notice in any way that his artificial bed partner feels & looks somewhat different after her transformation? Junichi the video-clerk (Arata) becomes her boyfriend and he’s okay with the fact that she comes with a valve that can deflate her? It’s clear that director Hirokazu Koreeda wants you to step into Nozomi’s fantasy world and not question the real human characters’ actions. If you’re okay with that, then there’s much more enjoyment to gain from Air Doll. And lessons to be learned. Some of those might state the obvious, others may lead to newfound insights.
When Nozomi starts living her life, you might draw similarities to the classic tale of Pinocchio, but Koreeda soon makes you forget all about it. He lets the main concept of alienation amongst city life take the upperhand and places Nozomi’s innocence and eagerness to connect with fellow human beings – in this case a fundamentally odd urge, as the protagonist herself is an abstract anomaly – as a contrast against it. It’s very charming to see her naivity getting her into all sorts of situations. Nozomi first starts to imitate life, then discover it and eventually learn from it. The first thing she becomes aware of, is her very own persona, while on the other hand she keeps falling back into mistaking herself for the object she once was. She strives to be human, tries to comprehend the ways of mortality but in the end… she finds out in a gruesomely harsh manner she’s not capable.
A neat aspect of Koreeda‘s script, is how he has Nozomi briefly touch the lives of several people. Minor characters that have no connection to her and play a less significant role in the development of events but are in fact strange and valuable additions when it comes to the film’s themes, which are basically reflections on individual cases of the human condition in general. They all have their own specific issues. But the main ideas behind Air Doll that come across in a less palpable fashion, are the emptiness we all carry inside, the need for us to fill it and the beauty that lies in the purity of sadness.
Air Doll is rather subtle, pretty accessible and slightly frivolous on the surface, but as to be expected from a Koreeda film, it caries a profoundness within that will surely emerge upon subsequent viewings. It’s a thought-provoking film, but one that never gets too heavy. For one thing, if you’re willing, you can spot a metaphorical thread running through it which can be considered a play on Christian beliefs. Whether or not Nozomi’s interactions with random persons have a sgnificant effect on them, is up to you to determine. But her ways of brushing their lives are not unlike those of a messiah (yes, you may think of Jesus if you like). Nozomi’s constant struggle with being human, will eventually lead her to meet her maker (that would be God, in this case), the only way she can come to terms with her own existence.
Air Doll is a film that will not leave you indifferent, or at least it should not. A most ingenious yet simple aspect of the film’s basic concept, is having the viewer feel along with an initially lifeless doll made out of plastic. Koreeda accomplishes this superbly and nothing ever tastes too sirupy. Du-Na Bae has a marvelous way of breathing life into her character and nails down a well-balanced, detailed and believable performance, spanning a wide range of emotions (as does Koreeda with the themes in this film). But regardless her ways of carrying the picture and his efficient direction, you might start to feel the film’s length at some point. Air Doll hums along nicely at a slow and steady pace, but after about 90 minutes you can feel the movie running out of steam. Not that it fizzles out towards the end, though. It wraps up things just fine; it could have used some trimming in places.
Koreeda found a very consistent tone for Air Doll‘s shifting nature, which again shows we are dealing with a skillful filmmaker. With a lighthearted approach, he serves us icky bits you can still giggle with, unsettling characteristics that don’t feel out of place, depressive ponderings not impossible to handle and offbeat eroticism far more arousing than you’d expect. And can you imagine making fun of Harvey Keitel between all this? All this to say that the result is an unconventional, contemporary fable not all that out of the ordinary. At times humorous, at times sad. A gentle drama and an aimable fantasy.
Air Doll vaguely reminded me of Cyborg She (with a parallel emphasis only on the irresistably naive sexiness of a non-human female entity, really), though the latter plays it more like a straight sci-fi comedy, albeit with a more complex narrative yet less profound nature. Either way, also a recommended viewing. If you can dig a little romance too, that is.