Korean(?!!) Movie Review #7: Air Doll (2009)

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Starring: Bae Doo-na (Nozomi),  Itsuji Itao (Hideo), and Arata Iura (Junichi). Written and directed by Hirokazu Koreeda (original manga by Yoshiie Gōda). In Japanese with English subtitles. 126 minutes.

Less than four minutes into Air Doll, middle-aged owner Hideo has sex with the inflatable doll he’s named Nozomi, with all the crunching of flesh against plastic and washing of detachable vaginas that that implies. It’s as if director Hirokazu Koreeda was deliberately encouraging the squeamish to walk out of the theater.

It’s also ironic, as the very next scene reveals it to be a very erotic, albeit knowingly voyeuristic movie too, the camera luxuriating on Nozomi’s nude form as she magically comes to life (see the telling juxtaposition in the NSFW screenshot below; the subtitle actually refers to some dew she’s touching). She’ll proceed to spend a disproportionate amount of the next two hours topless, even for a movie about a sex-doll.

Yes, still an inflatable sex-doll, not a woman. For as she proceeds to leave Hideo’s apartment in a maid costume, and encounter a succession of sad, desperately lonely characters, her literal hollowness proves to be a poignant metaphor for all their lost, empty souls.

But she deliberately appears palpably, sensually human too, and you just can’t have it both ways. Especially in a movie that already so heavily relies on viewers’ suspensions of disbelief.

So, even if is nitpicking to wonder how she goes from learning speech and what clothes are in the morning, to getting a job at a DVD store in the evening, a scene in which a beautician covers her suddenly visible* seams with make-up is nothing but confusing and distracting. As is another when she pumps herself full of air one morning (naked, of course), yet somehow had a meal at a restaurant with co-worker Junichi the night before. And so on. Suffice to say, her new form is ambiguous, but much more human than not.

When she accidentally punctures her hand and rapidly deflates fifty minutes in then, it’s jarring, and it’s asking far too much of the viewer to pretend that she’s been nothing but a walking, talking balloon all that time.

*With the benefit of 4 viewings, the seams are visible earlier, but only in some scenes. Appearance-wise, the movie is rife with continuity errors.

Granted, Air Doll is fundamentally an allegory. But, rather than aiding it, here the confusing content simply gets in the way of the message. Koreeda, who borrowed only the initial concept from the original manga, really should have considered alternative methods of conveying it.

One possibility would be having Nozomi become fully human at the beginning of the movie and during the day, but often uncontrollably and reluctantly reverting a little, then changing back completely at night. Indeed, this is actually very similar to what happens in the first half of the movie, and then making her transformation progressively more unstable would suit the second half — and narrative as a whole — very well too.

Crucially, the nagging questions also distract the viewer from fully appreciating one of the movie’s great strengths, which is how Nozomi never really stops the innocent, childlike exploration of her new world, nor finding beauty in it. And her exquisite mimicry of its inhabitants is simply priceless.

Yet despite those, she also shows, as Tirdad Derakhshani of The Inquirer puts it, a sublime progression “from a childlike naif who plays with toddlers in a sandbox to a sophisticated woman who devours books, draws portraits, and philosophizes about life,” (my emphasis) and I’m not alone in thinking that Bae Doo-na is one of the few actresses that has the skill and versatility to pull the combination off (Tom Miles of Midnight Eye suggests Rinko Kikuchi or Hanae Kan, while Yuna at The Marmot’s Hole calls Aoi Yuu “a Bae Doo-na equivalent in Japan”).

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The practicalities of that process are that, despite everything, she soon establishes a routine of leaving for work at a DVD store once Hideo leaves, learning about the world through the strangers she meets on her breaks and/or days off, and especially by constantly asking questions of her unfazed, endlessly patient coworker Junichi, who soon starts taking her out to see the things she asks about. Finally, she has to rush home to lie passively for her “master” before he returns home, finding him increasingly repulsive, but using the time to ponder her discovery that she is/was a cheap “substitute for handling sexual desire;” to learn about love, mortality, and desire; and to determine why she found herself “with a heart [she] was not supposed to have.”

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(Minor Spoilers Begin)

But then, with the combination of a rare form of cunnilingus and strategically-placed tape, Junichi saves her from her puncture. An obvious turning point in their relationship, albeit more because Nozomi thinks she’s found a kindred spirit rather than because of their new intimacy per se (indeed, Junichi is so enigmatic that she initially thinks he is a sex doll too), unfortunately the movie, already convoluted, becomes very difficult to follow. And, crucially, not because of the depth of the message, but rather because Koreeda seems to be deliberately encouraging mistaken readings of the plot. In particular:

  • The morning after the puncture scene, the next 20 minutes show Nozomi symbolically throwing away Hideo’s pump for her, then leaving rejoicing in her freedom and liberation around the city. It very much seems as if she’s left Hideo forever…so again it’s jarring when you see her miserably by his side that evening, as per usual.
  • That last scene above is very brief, and it’s easy for it not to really register (although in fairness, it is technically there). So when you see Nozomi sneaking a look at Hideo bringing a new doll home, it appears that perhaps he’s doing so because she’s actually left him. Not, as, we’re supposed to think, that he’s put the (still fully inflated) Nozomi away in a cupboard.

And there’s many more confounding examples. Perhaps, certainly, the misreadings are just due to my own dull-wittedness, but I don’t think I’d be alone in needing two — actually three! — viewings of this movie just to figure out what the hell is going on. In contrast, Inception (2010), say, has many deep messages, but somehow I still understood the plot in that on the very first try (source, right).

In combination with obvious questions about her human or doll form then, and the problems of continuity with Nozomi’s image, this is a third red flag that points to laziness and/or arrogance on Kareeda’s part. Or alternatively, with a hat tip to Gomushin Girl’s comment in my review of Kim Ki-duk’s Samaria (2004), perhaps he simply got too caught up in his own message to think about how it might look to a less-informed audience member.

But he redeems himself with a powerful message just before the end of the movie, and one that I’m amazed that other reviewers (at least the 25+ I’ve read) didn’t pick up on

.(Major Spoilers Begin).

While, again, it’s delightful to watch Nozomi learning to be human, in the process noticing the hidden joys and beautifies of life that most of us have chosen to ignore, that’s increasingly tempered by her realization that her own purpose is nothing but to sate the sexual desires of the men around her, who do nothing to disabuse her of that notion. It’s vividly shown in the dead expression on her face when the DVD store-owner blackmails her into sex, threatening to tell Junichi about Hideo, and also partially explains why later, having finally left Hideo, she tells Junichi she’ll do absolutely anything for him.

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When he replies that he’d like to deflate and then breathe life into her again, she’s visibly shocked and — I’d say — disappointed that he’s ultimately no different from all the other men she’s met. But of course agrees, and appears to enjoy the ensuing “sex.”

Yet then, when he’s sleeping, she cuts an equivalent nozzle into his own navel, ultimately killing him from, presumably, loss of blood. But not before blowing into it herself, climbing on top of him, and unequivocally orgasming to the ensuing “conventional” sex (which, despite his tremendous pain, he’ll also do his best to actively participate in).

While it may sound minor in isolation, and I don’t want to be so glib as to take loudness, frequency, and duration of moans as a barometer for women’s sexual pleasure, it is the only moment in the entire movie she imposes her own will and/or sexuality on others, rather than being a mere, literal, receptacle for theirs. As such, It stands as a rare and very welcome final moment of defiance in the somewhat inevitable and predictable path to her coming suicide. (Update: on that last, see io9 for a curious case of life imitating art.)

(All Spoilers End)

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To the extent that it exists at all then, it is precisely here that a feminist reading of the movie could be further explored. In contrast, John Esther’s point at Jesther Entertainment that “Air Doll stands for, among other things, as a metaphor for women who are to look pretty, say nothing, stay home and wait for the patriarch to return home and breathe his breath into her lifeless a(i)rea” is true, but a bit of a dead end. As is Nick Davis’s comment at Nick’s Flicks Picks, which I thought was a misguided — and very forced — interpretation:

If you know anything about the Pacific fronts in World War II and a history of chauvinist disavowals by Japanese governments, the casting of a Korean actress as a Japanese man’s inert, unresisting erotic receptacle can’t help trigger distasteful connotations.

That aside, and in conclusion, while it’s a little harsh for Kelly Vance of East Bay Express to describe the movie as a “dreary, middlebrow allegory,” it is true that the movie is at least thirty minutes too long, many of those spent in vignettes showcasing the emptiness of the characters’ lives, while Nozomi drones on about — wait for it — how empty life is, all to the accompaniment of languid, sickly-sweet music in the background. Also, in a review at Antagony and Ecstasy that I highly recommend, Tim Brayton rightfully points out that the movie only provides observations and not actual insights, whereas plenty of Pinnochio-like movies have given both before, and with much more skill too.

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So, with the important qualification that you may need a lot of help with the plot before watching, Air Doll can a pleasant enough movie, albeit one lacking much of a vision, and inexpertly conveyed at that. Instead, think of it more as an invitation to form your own.

And, in the process, do take time to notice the superb cinematography too. For as Tom Miles at Midnight Eye Review explains, it’s set:

in one of Tokyo’s remaining shitamachi, an old neighbourhood of little independent houses, while ominous high-rises wait on the other side of the river for the aging abodes to crumble, impatient to take over the turf.

On that note, see above for my favorite location in the movie, which even someone as literal-minded as myself could appreciate!

5 thoughts on “Korean(?!!) Movie Review #7: Air Doll (2009)

  1. No “Korean Gender Reader” post this week sorry: frankly this took a lot out of me, and I also had – have – a conference, a work-related editing job, and a radio interview going on this week. But next week’s will be going up on Friday as it should (not the usual Sunday!), and the week after next I’ll have a review of an actual Korean movie – My Eleventh Mother (2007) – up for a change!

  2. I loved all your takes on it here; it got me thinking about wanting to watch it again, wondering how much I was enchanted by the over-arching themes and how I may have overlooked a lot! I loved the allegory the most, and the cinematography. I do recall it felt disjointed. That emotion of “not belonging” that the whole film seemed to communicate, though…it really stayed with me, and still does every time I hear the score.

    • Sorry for taking so long to reply, and thanks very much for the comment: after spending 5+ days working on something, it’s also gratifying to know that at least someone actually read it!

      Seriously, frankly I’m surprised at how little commentary this post generated compared to my review of Linda Linda Linda, although I guess that is a much more popular movie, whereas this one even I only finally started warming to (from a base of hating it, despite 3 viewings!) while writing the review, and again I honestly don’t think I could have forgiven the flaws I’ve pointed out if it wasn’t Bae Doo-na in the role.

      Also, I’ve got no-one but myself to blame for taking…let’s see…erk! Three and and a half months since my last reivew, so I’ll try to redeem myself with a much more timely review of 11th Mother! :D

  3. Pingback: Top 5 Films | jenmcdonagh

  4. Pingback: Air Doll reviewed by James Turnbull | Film Escapism

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