Air Doll

Film about a blow-up doll coming to life lacks much under the surface.

By Sean Burns
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Jun. 15, 2010

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Stay Happy: The titular sex doll at her video-store job

Grade: C

With everything turning up ’80s at the box office these days, please, nobody tell Kim Cattrall that the idea for a pervy remake of Mannequin has already been swiped by the Japanese.

Hirokauzu Kore-eda, that most sensitive of auteurs—he gave us the modern classic After Life and last year’s Still Walking—goes a bit loony with Air Doll, the tragically pokey tale of an inflatable sex doll who magically comes to life in a sad and beautiful world.

“I found myself with a heart I was not supposed to have” is all we get by way of explanation, in gaseous voiceover from Nozomi, played by Linda Linda Linda’s deadpan heartthrob Doona Bae. You might remember this marvelous young actress as the goofball archery-expert sister from Bong Joon-ho’s The Host, and to whatever extent Air Doll actually works, it’s thanks to her googly-eyed stare and cheerful willingness to walk around topless for more than two hours. (Here’s where I’m contractually required to refer to her performance as “brave,” because that’s trusty film-critic shorthand for “naked a lot.” If you don’t believe me, cross-reference Kate Winslet’s reviews.)

Still boasting thick vinyl seams on her arms and legs and a plastic valve in her navel, Doona’s Nozomi wanders the bustling streets of the city meeting lonely people, mimicking their movements and erupting into slapstick bursts of empathy. Every night she creeps her way back home to get uncomfortably humped by her sad-sack owner (Itsuji Itao), who is usually more intent on dressing Nozomi up in fancy outfits and boring her with long stories about his workday than anything seriously deviant.

Eventually, Nozomi learns to speak and finds a job at a video store. Really.

Irony being in short supply these days, Air Doll has a long speech by the shop’s owner, lecturing Nozomi about how DVDs are just a meager substitute for the real big-screen experience. She, of course takes this urgently to heart, droning on about how she herself is just a substitute for the genuine physical experience. The unintended punch line here is that Air Doll is being exhibited theatrically via cheap lo-def DVD projection with sorrier picture quality than the big-screen TV wherever it was you watched the game last night. I’m sorry, but was somebody talking about meager substitutes?

As bonkers as it is, Air Doll has some lyrical moments. Kore-eda is simply too fine a filmmaker not to capture some stray glimpses of beauty, even in such an undisciplined mess of a movie. My favorite is an early scene in which Nozomi’s secret identity is revealed to her co-worker (single-named stud Arata) because she strays too close to a thumbtack. Our heroine’s rapid deflation requires a desperate rescue operation, which Kore-eda shoots like a cunnilingus scene and suggests just how many kinky, Cronenberg-ian directions this picture might have ventured.

Instead, we’re stuck with a fetish toy’s Wings of Desire, as Nozomi sullenly observes the sadness of regular folks who binge-eat, drink too much and sit alone on park benches feeling sorry for themselves. The movie can’t seem to make up its mind about the specifics of its fantasy world, tossing out references to Pinocchio, The Little Mermaid and Splash without settling on a coherent theme other than “most people are depressed and lonely.” In a scene borrowed from A.I., Nozomi happens upon the factory of her “birth,” confronting a designer who—all things considered—takes her newfound status as a sentient being in remarkable stride.

“Tell me that everything you saw wasn’t sad,” the godlike fuck-toy creator asks her. Indeed, Nozomi does finally open her heart to find a real love in this cruel, unforgiving world. What occurs next is so sickly hilarious, it ranks up there with certain head-scratching scenes of the recent Splice, insofar as you’ll wonder if the filmmaker is being serious or just having some sort of perverted nervous breakdown.
I can’t wait for the sequel, in which a vibrator goes to college.

Director: Hirokazu Kore-eda
Running time: 125 minutes

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