Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Air Doll

Though it was only scheduled for a one-week run, I suspect the people responsible for booking movies at Landmark Kendall Square expected a bit more from Air Doll. It's weird, sure, but Kore-eda's films have done well in the area before (I think both Nobody Knows and Still Walking stuck around for a wile), Bae Doo-na is a bit of a known name, and its combination of whimsy and kink might cross over between audiences. It was booked on screen #2, rather than one of the smaller ones (screens #6-9), so they seemed to have some confidence in it. It went quietly after a week, though, and the show I went to was pretty sparsely attended.

That's probably fair. It's easy to see why a certain segment of critics and audiences will like it; it's artsy but not hard-edged, and it is pretty clearly saying something. For me, though, it didn't quite work. It reminded me of last year's Tokyo Sonata, which got pretty weird in the end, threatening to go completely off the rails. I wound up being pretty cool with it, but I could feel it losing other people in the theater.

Interestingly, bits of it reminded me of a book I read during vacation, Hiroshi Yamamoto's The Stories of Ibis. Not necessarily in big ways, but small ones, like how the translators for both use the word "heart" rather than "soul" when talking about inanimate things gaining self-awareness, even though it sounds a bit odd in both cases. Both have threads in their stories about how humans can love inhuman things, and whether this sort of one-sided affection is actually a bad thing.

Ibis, however, is a much better story, and not just because it fits my genre preferences more closely (hard science fiction versus "magic realism"); Yamamoto has put much more thought into how these nonhuman beings would think, and though the future of humanity in Ibis is arguably downright pessimistic, it is at its core much less cynical than Air Doll, which only seems to half-heartedly believe that modern human life can be more than hollow.

Kûki ningyô (Air Doll)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 8 June 2010 in Landmark Kendall Square #2 (first-run)

Air Doll is mostly sweet, as well as a little strange, and has a charming lead performance courtesy of Bae Doo-na. There's a clear metaphor for modern life lurking behind its fantasy premise, but once that's out in the open, there's not much else to it.

Hideo (Itsuji Itao) is middle-aged and single, and based on in his home life, it's not hard to see why: When he comes home at the end of the night full of complaints, they are made to his inflatable love doll "Nozomi", which he dresses, sits at the table, and moves around the apartment. One morning, as he leaves for work, the doll sits up on its own, eventually walking out of the apartment and into the city. Although her movements are initially jerky and awkward, she (Bae Doo-na) soon learns to imitate the people around her (and cover her seams with make-up!). Eventually, she gets a job in a video store, where she catches the eye of Junichi (Arata), a young clerk.

Filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda (working from a manga by Yoshiie Goda) doesn't disguise the point he's trying to make, that many of us are as hollow figuratively as Nozomi is literally. There are multiple cases of the dialog running "I'm empty inside"/"me too", with varying degrees of solemnity. Once that's out of the way, though, Kore-eda and company seem to struggle to elaborate on it. Indeed, the filmmakers seem very uneasy about where to go next; they don't have much of a story about what it takes to fill the void inside, and they probably don't want Air Doll to be about the specifics of how Nozomi came to life or what that life implies, lest that overshadow the point they're making about modern life leaving people feeling empty.

Instead, they wind up unspooling a bizarre and unpleasant sequence of events. I can grasp the idea Kore-eda is going for here; it's a mirror image of the cutesy scenes of Nozomi being just adorably ignorant in the first act. Most of the bits work and have a point; unfortunately, the ones that don't flop so spectacularly as to blot the rest out. Kore-eda is already working on a potentially tricky high-wire with the film's mix of innocence and kink, so the last act winds up being a step farther than I'm willing to go.

The movie faltering is not the fault of the cast. Bae Doo-na is game for whatever Kore-eda throws at her, doing a very nice job of building a personality for Nozomi after the too-cutesy first act. She's not quite able to overcome the movie's sillier moments, but when she's given a moment to show Nozomi becoming a more complete person, she always nails it. Itsuji Itao and Arata are quite good as the men in her life, complementary cases of isolation who seem straightforward enough, although they have plenty of human complexity. There's also a larger cast of characters that Nozomi encounters repeatedly who do a nice job of fleshing out her world.

They're all lonely, of course, many just existing as more examples of the concept of being empty inside. After a while, that drains the life from the movie as surely as a puncture will release the air from Nozomi, and the cute inflatable woman gags can't quite pump it back up fast enough.

(Formerly posted at EFC)

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