Writer-director Kore-eda has a strong fanbase in Singapore after his well-received Nobody Knows garnered him quite the following from a screening here years back. No sooner than the festival's tickets had gone on sale that it registered its first sell-out session in Air Doll, and two other subsequent repeat screenings released had all its tickets already snapped up. Either that, or the appeal of watching a sex doll come to life under Singapore's R21 rating uncut is too hard to pass up. I had that opportunity to partake in a masterclass session with Kore-eda during last year's Tokyo International Film Festival where three of his films got screened overnight with the director and his guests in attendance, but alas I wasn't in top form to have covered it. I'm regretting it now.
The other film I had watched with a sex doll featured prominently in the story was Craig Gillespie's Lars and the Real Girl starring Ryan Gosling, where his character bought a custom made sex doll over the internet not for sex, but for companionship. Personally I've always thought it creepy for anyone to own a doll to interact with and yikes, to make love to, and here even christening it Nozomi. But as a character in Air Doll puts it, a real life relationship may be too hard for some folks to handle because it comes with inevitable problems, warts and all. And yes while that's the truth, I still can't fathom the necessity of owning a doll for sexual gratification, but I digress.
Kore-eda's Air Doll is a fantasy film along the lines of Pinnochio, where an inanimate object comes to life and dreams of being a real boy. Here, it's all the more creepier when the air doll Nozomi suddenly without reason nor forewarning, starts to move on her own, and develops heart and soul through the course of the story. She doesn't need to yearn to be real, because she's almost real, utilizing clothing and makeup to conceal portions of her that are tell-tale signs that she's a life-sized made-of-plastic Barbie doll coming in the form of Korean actress Bae Doo-na (last seen in the Korean monster film The Host).
Bae brings her Nozomi a sense of that wide-eyed wonderment of the real world, and her performance as a plastic inflatable doll is flawless, with Nozomi constantly in amazement from the assault of the senses of sight, sound and touch. There's also a comedic innocence brought about through her zilch knowledge of the real world, which of course we'll expect this to be exploited by nastier humans, because the world is as evil as such, where innocence has no place once her honeymoon period is over. Balancing her routine very carefully with that of her owner Hideo's (Itsuji Itao) in order to enable her to work at a video store in the day, living an independent life undetected, and then being back at home on time to fulfill Hideo's sexual needs, things start to become a little more complicated when she develops feelings for her colleague Junichi (Arata).
Paced slowly to mirror Nozomi's journey of discovery of all things beautiful, from cosmetics to toddlers to that proverbial flower along the sidewalk, Air Doll contains a few scenes that provide that stark commentary about the emptiness of soul and the loneliness experienced in big city living. To Nozomi it's an abstract concept that she grasps only literally, but for the rest of us, we're likely to nod in agreement with the statements, since we're experiencing such feelings day in and day out. It is these episodes and incidents, through Nozomi's interactions with others that bring the film to life, and some of these can be as short as one self-contained scene like the one on the bus where she lends her shoulder to a sleeping man. It's all within our means to show a little compassion and to make the world a better place to live in.
While yet consumed with a pop kind of feeling throughout, and Kore-eda's most erotic film to date, the film is a meditation of life, and the fragility of it, where people are constantly in search of substitutes for things they cannot obtain to fulfill some need or want, which reflects quite well of our modern life where distractions are many, and substitution being a way of life from products to services. I absolutely loved how Kore-eda provided us scenes of satisfaction with a montage of lonely people doing simple things, to that switch later on with dissatisfaction with the same. It's a wonderful fantasy film that makes us reflect on our own parallels, but doesn't do so in a preachy way, instead relying on comedy through the literal interpretation of things as an early counterbalance to lighten the mood later on with tragedy meant for reflection.
The science-fiction equivalent will be something like Spielberg's A.I., where a young robot embarks on a quest to find his mother and become a real boy This air doll has plenty of humanity inside her, full of soul and that never-ceasing innocent curiosity that makes it a delight to watch, maintaining touching aspects to tug at your heartstrings. I'm quite certain the audience who have snapped up tickets so eagerly won't be left disappointed.