It seems life
is constructed in a way
that no one can fulfill it alone.
Life contains its own absence,
which only an other can fulfill.
It seems the world is the summation of Others
we neither know nor are told
that we will fulfill each other.
We lead our scattered lives,
perfectly unaware of each other…
Or at times, allowed to find
the Other’s presence disagreeable
Why is it,
that the world is constructed so loosely?
Nozomi, Air Doll.
The above is a monologue delivered by Nozomi (Bae Doona), the main character of this film. Funnily enough, I felt that this would have been the natural ending point for this film, a point that would have meant that ‘Air Doll’ would be nothing more than a short film.
But oh, what a glorious short film it would have been.
It isn’t a short film. In fact, running at over two hours, it cannot hope of coming even close to being defined as a short film. It is a film by Hirokazu Koreeda, a filmmaker who first came to my attention with ‘Nobody Knows’, arguably the most powerful free-DVD I’ve ever received (it was bundled along with a film magazine in Korea at the time). In fact, it was a Thai friend of mine who raved about it, just as we were both about to depart for Seoul. I inquired as to what it was about, and I could sense even with his laidback style that this is a film I should get excited about. I considered saving my money, and borrowing his copy instead (for it was him who had bought the magazine first at the bus terminal), I went for it. It was the best 3,000 I’ve spent in a single transaction.
So, Koreeda. I’ve kept my eye on him.
‘Air Doll’ follows the adventures of…well, an air doll. A sex doll, to be more precise, an aid a lot more common in Japan, it seems, than in other parts of Asia. In this case, Nozomi the air doll belongs to Hideo (Itsuji Itao), for whom the doll is more than just a sex object, but a companion. He lives with her, talks with her, dresses her, and basically treats her as a real person. That in itself is an interesting subject to explore, but the director goes down an even more interesting route, a route whose synopsis caught my eye way back when. Naturally, Nozomi came to life, and starts to explore the outside world. Beyond her slightly-weird costume (a maid’s costume), she appears to be generally accepted by the populace at large. Quite frankly, that in itself raises questions, because she approaches things with a very child-like naivety. That makes me wonder: is a grown woman behaving very much like a child seem acceptable to society at large? Are we so tolerant of others that such behaviours wouldn’t be enough for a second thought? Or is it more of a statement of East Asian societies, where young women who act younger than their age is considered to be more than just OK, it is desirable? It’s always dangerous to make such sweeping statements, of course, but many guys like girls like that, and many girls like to be liked like that.
Nozomi, however, doesn’t strike me like that. In fact, I find her to be refreshing, and throughout the film, it is her character who seems to be the most human and humane in many aspects. Other characters appear to be created in direct contrast to her, to illustrate not just her innocence, but the fallacy of human beings. She managed to obtain employment at a video store, with a scrupulous owner not afraid to take advantage of her. That is not to say that she is completely adrift and alone, for she comes across others who were like her, lonely beings who felt discriminated against because of their age and physical beauty. This would be an issue that’s not limited to just Asia, but pertinent questions to be asked of societies across the world.
She would meet Junichi (Arata) who also works at the video store, and serves as her love interest. He helps her to grow, to learn and to understand more about the world. He seems amused, rather than judgmental of her nature, and it is their relationship that sustains the remainder of the film. There’s also a cameo of sorts by Joe Odagiri, who seems to pop up in a lot of the films I come across. He was prominent in both ‘Dream’ by Kim Ki-duk and ‘The Warrior and the Wolf’. A hardworking man, although his role here probably didn’t take long to film, but playing the maker of the air dolls, the same kind as Nozomi, it adds an important little intrigue about the film.
It’s interesting that such a film could provoke deeper questions about humanity, especially when the lead character is an air doll. The idea of humanising an inanimate object is not particularly new, but in the hands of director Koreeda, it becomes a concept well-worth revisiting. As I have mentioned, the film’s length might be an issue, and just reading the
monologue itself, it might give an impression that this film is a preachy one. Nevertheless, this is a film that raises questions, rather than gives straightforward answers.
It helps if you have a deeper understanding of the social contexts, it would become a more enriching experience. Having spent some time in Korea, this became something that occupied some of my thinking power as well. Japan and Korea are both very different countries in their respective ways, but there are many similarities that can be drawn from across the East Sea/Sea of Japan. Ideas of beauty, which people spent an enormous amount of time and money to realise, and ideas of loneliness, which people are willing to endure in the city for their respective causes. It was something a friend of mine mentioned recently that somehow flicked the switch on in my head: “We Koreans, we just like to have good skin.” That makes me wonder whether people are trying to become beautiful or whether that is actually secondary to having good skin.
Is it somewhat significant that the lead role is played by a Korean actress?
Maybe, maybe not.
Don’t get him wrong. Fikri likes Koreans.