AIR DOLL Do not confuse the plot of the comedy Lars and the Real Girl with AIR DOLL. This film starts out light, but goes on to explore the very modern issue of societal alienation in Japan, however this theme could apply to any major city, as neighbourhoods and communities move away from traditional housing to vertical density. Isolated as we become in these modern constructions, we have to admit that something is lost from being able to exchange even a passing nod to our neighbours. In many such large buildings it is very difficult to know who you are sharing space with. In such a setting where relationships are very hard to form, the film's main character has established intimacy with an "air doll" as a sexual substitute. He has conversations with her about his day, and they have sex on a regular basis, but she is, of course, not real and not able to respond. This lack of intimacy is mirrored in the peripheral characters that we are introduced to, but never meet; we see their sole actions in their lonely homes and workplace, but we are at a distance, observing in their lives.
When the inflatable "air doll" suddenly comes to life one day, she is thrilled by her first breath and fascinated with having a heart. By day she explores the neighbourhood, and even gets a job in a video store where she falls in love with one of the workers. Her daytime life is kept hidden from her owner, and their relationship continues its sexual, but empty routine. There is no intimacy between her owner and the doll, and as she learns more and more about the world, she finds beauty mixed with disappointment and pain. Still, she would not go back to being heart-less. Breathing and having a heart is an experience of beauty that she could not have in her non-sensient form.
Doona Bae as the "air doll" is a delight on screen, and her adaptation to human life is touching. The infusion of humour and film references in the movie blend well with this drama about the loss of intimacy.
Director, Hirokazu Kore-eda is an experienced filmmaker, and as his film is listed in the Masters section of the TIFF programme guide, I have high expectations of his work. While he does not disappoint with AIR DOLL, he does not rise to the level of cinematic expertise that I expect from a master director. He fails on a minor point, in that this film is not well-paced. Too much time is spent on the transition of doll-like movements and wide-eyed wonder to "realness", and some scenes are underdeveloped, especially the cutting away from the main story to the peripheral characters. For instance, one such character is introduced and never appears for quite a while; you almost forget about her. An experienced director should have noted this, and should also be at a point in his career to work more closely with his editor. So, while I can forgive these flaws in a first-time director, I cannot dismiss them in Kore-eda.