Air Doll
aka Kûki Ningyô
Reviewed in October 2009 / Click Here to Comment
Director: Hirokazu Kore-eda. Cast: Bae Du-na, Arata, Itsuji Itao, Joe Odagiri, Sumiko Fuji, Tasuko Emoto, Mari Hoshino, Ryo Iwamatsu, Tomomi Maruyama, Miu Naraki, Masaya Takahashi, Susumu Terajima, Kimiko Yo. Screenplay: Hirokazu Kore-eda (based on the graphic novel The Pneumatic Figure of a Girl by Yoshiie Goda).


Photo © 2009 Fortissimo Films/Asmik Ace Entertainment
One of the theatrical releases I most regret skipping this summer was Hirokazu Kore-eda's Still Walking, which three tremendously dissimilar filmgoers in my life have all trumpeted among the year's best. Nonetheless, the same filmmaker's driftlessly twee Air Doll, relegated to a Market screening at last spring's Cannes festival, prevents me from being too hard on myself. The only other Kore-eda film I have seen, 2004's langourous parentless-child drama Nobody Knows, lessened the impact of its controlled mise-en-scène and patiently accumulated despair by dilating itself at least a half-hour too long. That's nothing, though, compared to Air Doll, which plays like a middling installment of some softballed international portmanteau like Paris, je t'aime, but maddeningly inflated to at least ten times the recommended scale. South Korean film star Bae Du-na stars in this fable about an inflatable sex doll who haltingly seeks an independent life in her hours away from her owner, a Japanese waiter (Itsuji Itao). If you know anything about the Pacific fronts in World War II and a history of chauvinist disavowals by Japanese governments, the casting of a Korean actress as a Japanese man's inert, unresisting erotic receptacle can't help trigger distasteful connotations. Air Doll, however, has more immediate problems building audience good will, since despite the lovely early sequence that captures the incipient sentience of the doll, whose owner calls her Nozomi, the film can barely get itself going without overdoing the moonish close-ups, tinkling pianos, inexpressively ostentatious colors, and ceaselessly bobbing camerawork.

Seemingly in pursuit of something like the diaphanous buoyancy of Hou Hsiao-hsien's Flight of the Red Balloon, particularly once Nozomi's improbable employment in a DVD rental store suffuses the film with precious metafilmic allusions, Air Doll's aspirations toward graceful légèreté have the unbidden and off-putting doggedness of a pageant contestant, rather than the unself-conscious delicacy which the script, lighting, performance, and mise-en-scène repeatedly court. Certainly Kore-eda seems not to have it in him to probe the Buñuelian lewdness of two scenes where Nozomi or her owner scrub her detachable vagina in soapy water. His late-breaking attempts to ballast the film with yearning gravitas and tortuously rationalized bloodletting feel even more arbitrary and forced than the noodly passages in which the oddly ruminative doll opines, "I found myself with a heart I wasn't supposed to have," or "Life contains its own absence." An elderly park-bench acquaintance tells her that "these days everybody is empty," which immediately traps Nozomi into unbearable metaphoricity, and implies that no one on screen is worth talking to if they are going to spout such tampopo-brained pseudo-wisdom.

Meanwhile, the languid tracking of Nozomi in her French maid's outfits and floral babydoll dresses explicitly sexualizes her through the stereotypical but unnerving codes of infantilization. Slightly more interesting is the image of a Japan that inhales more and more American and Western faux-culture by the minute, from the Hollywood films lining the shelves of the rental store to the cliché of the sexy maid. Unfortunately, Air Doll's palpable desire to endear itself to multilingual audiences makes it into a kind of symptom of anodyne, globalized images rather than a piquant, illuminating portrait of that trend. The most interesting moments by far are the saucily absurd scenes when, for instance, Nozomi pricks her finger and begins to deflate in front of co-workers who previously harbored no idea that she has a plastic nozzle where her navel's meant to be. But even in these intervals, Kore-eda hovers noncommitally among barely transcoded eroticism, mordant slapstick, feminist allegory, the studied vacuity of the middlebrow bauble, and a weirdly beaming, reactionary nostalgia for feckless gals with literal air in their heads, whose permeable orifices lead to nothing so complex as a body, a gut, or an interiority.

Toss in some faddishly Babel-like feints at using Nozomi to "connect" the drifting souls she encounters amid her vapid flâneries, and you have a Muzak-ish film that forever looks and sounds like it's winding to its gauzy conclusion, until you check your watch and realize how many more minutes remain for Kore-eda to dabble with this scenario and refuse to commit to a story or a slant. Air Doll isn't a bad movie so much as a colosally tepid and pointless one, complete with the compulsory scene where the synthetic protagonist dawdles into a warehouse of her half-formed likenesses and meets a taciturn manufacturer who, by the film's generic but tentative logic, figures as a sort of paternalistic deity. "Was everything you saw in this world sad?" he wants to know from Nozomi. "Was something, anything, beautiful?" Hopefully something was, but on the scale of transferable insights, the aesthetic rapture of the pneumatic lass rates somewhere in the vicinity of the sorrows of the weeping clown, pimped in this case by a film and a director who feel simultaneously embarrassed, lascivious, blankly indulgent, and dully distracted at the prospect of pramming her around. C


VOR: (2)   (What is this?)
A few of the images are insinuating enough, in color or mood, that they have stuck with me over a year since seeing the movie, which is finally approaching the eve of a Stateside commercial release. But Air Doll still feels like a well-regarded filmmaker making a stunted pass at a concept that never crossed over into being a movie, and I can't see it registering strongly with anyone who isn't a devotee of his body of work, or has some other very specific and pre-established investment in the material.

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