An inflatable sex doll spontaneously comes to life. When her owner heads out to work each day, Nozomi (Bae Doona) sneaks out herself. She meets the various people living in her neighbourhood. She finds herself a job at the local video library. She even tentatively begins a romance with a co-worker. Through her adventures, she tries to work out what it is to be human.
Sadly the answers she finds to her philosophical questions are ultimately not kind ones. Air Doll is a very strange movie. It begins with a fairly skeezy-sounding premise, and certainly has more than its fair share of on-screen nudity. By the halfway point, however, it has become something rather bright and wonderful. It displays a sort of naive optimism that wouldn’t be out of place alongside Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amélie (2001). By its final act it transitions again to be overwhelmingly depressing. I’ve seen the film described as a tragedy, but that overplays the emotions at work. Disappointment seems a closer term to what the film is expressing, although it is not, in itself, a disappointing film. It is a unique and subtle emotional journey.
This 2009 film is the work of writer/director Hirokazu Kore-eda, and is adapted from a manga by Yoshiie Goda. Kore-eda is a contemporary giant in Japanese cinema, thanks to a string of exceptional family dramas including I Wish, Like Father Like Son, and last year’s widely acclaimed Shoplifters. Air Doll captures him in a rare non-realist mode – although it is interesting to see that even his fantastical work brings along a grounded and realistic emotional tone.
This film is beautifully shot and for the most part has a very gentle, amiable sense to it. It does have a very slow pace, however, and I can’t help but feel the story would have been better served in 90 minutes than in the 125 that Koreeda takes. This is particularly the case given the sharp change in tone the film takes in its final 45 minutes – it is almost as if you are watching a different movie.
Nozomi is played by Bae Doona, a Korean actress who has impressed me quite a few times over the years in films like Sympathy for Mr Vengeance and The Host. She has a difficult job in portraying a rather unlikely protagonist, and if the final act works it is because she has invested so much heart into it. The supporting cast are solid, particularly Joe Odagiri who cameos as Sonoda, the sex doll designer who created Nozomi in the first place. His role is very brief, but he makes a strong impact.
Air Doll is a mildly challenging film, in that its initial premise – disturbing as it is – never quite seems fulfilled. Its warm middle act charms it audience, but a depressing coda extinguishes what warmth had been achieved. If this is Kore-eda’s take on the meaning of life, he must be a hell of a bummer at parties. Still, the movie certainly lingers in the mind. That sullen, melancholic feeling is just the filmmaker doing his job.