The story of Kore-Eda Hirokazu's Air Doll at the Chicago Film Festival is a hectic one: announced even before the full schedule came out, if my memory serves, it's three screenings sold well until some five days before the first one was scheduled, when it was found that the print wouldn't arrive on time, and the film would be replaced with additional screenings of Dear Doctor, apparently because one Japanese film is as good as another. Then, at almost literally the last moment, the print arrived after all, and we who had our Air Doll tickets in advance got to see it, just like we'd intended. I'm pretty sure I'd rather have seen Dear Doctor.
The narrative hook is pretty damn simple: Pinocchio, except instead of a marionette, it's an inflatable sex doll named Nozomi (Bae Doo-Na) that comes to life one morning for no explained reason one morning. For the two hours following this awakening, we watch Nozomi slowly assemble an understanding of the world around her, piece by piece: first by mimicking the behavior of those she encounters on the street, later on in a more intuitive fashion, after she realises that she has quite unexpectedly grown a heart. Along the way she gets a job at a DVD rental store where she falls in love with her co-worker Junichi (Arata), and begins to find her owner Hideo (Itao Itsjui) increasing repulsive, for she knows that he could never think of her as anything other than a sex object, for indeed that seems to be the only way he knows how to interact with real women, let alone animate dolls.
If you'd have asked me walking out of the screening, I'd have told you that this was the worst damn movie I saw at the festival. I've mellowed quite a bit on that point, but it remains that Air Doll is frustratingly shallow, refusing to be about anything in particular. No, that's a lie: it's about a great many things, and it is horribly superficial about every one of them. First and above all, this is a story about the innocent coming to understand what it means to be a human, enjoying the tiny, exquisite details of touch and sight, sound and smell; and then, as the film progresses, to watch as that sensual innocence is inexorably replaced by a growing awareness of the painful realities of human experience: betrayal, death, sadness.
That's just keen: a lot of stories have touched on those subjects, and indeed a lot of them have touched on those subjects using a very similar narrative angle. In fact, that's kind of the problem: a lot of stories have done this, so it's not enough for a movie just to say, "Look, there's this sex doll that just came to life, and now is experiencing things! Does it not make you want to re-evaluate how you, yourself, experience things?" A movie also has to have a point, not to be too frank about it; has to have some insight into humanity deeper or at least more interesting than, "human beings experience things". The greatest of the many flaws of Air Doll is that Nozomi never really becomes a terribly compelling point of identification for the audience; it is at all points very unclear what exactly is going on in that mind of hers. Instead of feeling, by proxy, that sense of discovery, we are simply watching an essentially alien figure going through the process of discovery on her own, like scientific observers in a lab. The film is emotionally dead as a result, and even a bit cloying and cutesy, since as a result of everything else, Nozomi starts to feel a bit like a pixie, all bubbly and cute and absolutely empty (the hideously irritating, tinkly score by World's End Girlfriend, AKA Maeda Katsuhiko, adds a great deal to this cloying feeling).
Mixed in with that one big huge gaping hole in the center of the film are a bunch of little problems that keep it pinned to the ground even in those fleeting moments when Nozomi actually does seem to function as a sympathetic protagonist. Most of these come in the form of little feints towards meaning that never go anywhere interesting: the representation of sex in the film is probably the most notable of these, since it is of necessity an unabashedly sexual film. Yet Kore-Eda seems uniquely terrified of actually pursuing any kind of exploration of what it means for a literal sex object to develop self-awareness (the closest he ever comes is in an image that occurs twice, as first Hideo and then a great deal later Nozomi washes out the silicone sheath that functions as her genitalia). Imagine what Imamura Shohei or Suzuki Seijun might have done with the story of a living sex doll! But there's to be none of that here, in a film where either sex or female nudity is a fairly regular companion, with a nonetheless prim, even Puritanical resistance towards chasing the implications of its story.
Then there is the stumbling attempt to point out that Japan is become increasingly Westernised, an idea raised a few separate times but never explored; or the question late in the film, if unbridled innocence can actually be a dangerous thing to oneself and others in a world that is not itself innocent. And hell, there are some good old-fashioned nitpicks to be had: why can't Hideo tell that Nozomi is alive? Doesn't she look different to him, too? How is it possible that someone dressed in a sexy maid outfit with only the most bare-bones social skills can possibly get a customer service job? Nagging questions like these cropped up so often that I honestly started to wonder, for the first time in a life of watching Japanese films, if there was some cultural angle I was missing.
Hell, maybe that's it. Maybe it's a big old cultural misunderstanding. I, with my pushy Western approach to narrative, want there to be any kind of point to anything going on, or at least an emotional response to any of what's going, or hell, at least the sense that Kore-Eda had some thematic motivation for making this movie (I haven't seen his very well-received Nobody Knows or Still Walking, but if this is what passes for human observation in his eyes, I might have to pass). Instead, there's some very pretty cinematography by Lee Pin-Bing, who is known for such things, and a mechanically effective performance by Bae, as a being slowly getting used to such things as walking and talking. Outside of that, it's just... not "bad", not exactly. But excruciatingly pointless.