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Air Doll -- Film Review

Benjamin Walker
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CANNES -- Just a whiff of a story, "Air Doll" is aesthetically so exquisitely packaged, and so tenderly directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda that the urban fairytale about an inflatable sex doll come to life gradually unfurls as an achingly beautiful meditation on loneliness and longing in the city, and a reflective look on a consumerist culture that encourages easy substitutes and disposability, even of humans and feelings.

With U.K. and French rights already secured, it will muster plenty of fest and critical support. Like its graphic novella original, it is structurally a little frail and stylistically fey, but female audiences will more likely tap in to its feminine sensibility, especially the themes of aging, appearance-consciousness and romantic fantasy.

Waif-like Korean actress Bae Doo-na ("The Host"), with her non-Japanese (hence otherworldly) elocution and body language, perfectly fits the mold of air doll Nozomi (which means 'hope' in Japanese) -- owned by disgruntled waiter Hideo (Itsuji Itao), who eats with, chats with and has sex with her. One day, she realizes that she has a heart and comes alive, exploring her run-down Tokyo neighborhood with childlike curiosity. After getting a part-time job in the local DVD rental store, she falls in love with co-worker Junichi (Arata).

The store stock exists as an alternative universe to the quotidian world outside, and not only becomes Nozomi's reference point to pick up human attributes, but gives Kore-eda an excuse to play delightful quiz games with his cinephile audience -- his second homage to cinema since "After Life." Since Nozomi has never seen film on print before, the DVDs function also as a symbol of the replica or substitute culture responsible for her own genesis.

Nozomi encounters local figures who lead solitary existences like planets forever encircling their own orbits -- most of them are women anxiously holding on to something insubstantial -- fading youth, rubbish or fantasy criminal records. She befriends an ailing old poet who illuminates her quest for raison d'etre with a book quotation: "Life contains its own absence, which only the Other can fill." Taiwanese cinematographer Mark Lee Ping-Bing's graceful tracking shots capture these people's verbally inexpressible sadness with an andante musical rhythm.

The ambience of the location -- an old quarter nudged between high-rise developments -- is transcended by night scenes lit with a magical, silvery shimmer, while daytime lighting is crisply gleaming. Moments of poetic silence alternate with the soft, dreamlike electronic score by indie composer world's end girlfriend to evoke an eerie fairytale quality.

That the air doll personifies the human yearning for fulfillment through companionship is spelled out a little too bluntly when she is accidentally deflated, and Junichi resuscitates her by blowing into her belly button. But their affair has a sensuality that floats above the artificiality of the plot.

Festival de Cannes -- Un Certain Regard

Production company: Engine Film, Bandai Visual, TV Man Union, Eisei Gekijio, Asmik Ace Entertainment

Jason Kempin/Getty Images
Jason Kempin/Getty Images
Jason Kempin/Getty Images
Jason Kempin/Getty Images
Jason Kempin/Getty Images

Cast: Bae Doo-na, Arata, Itsuji Itao, Joe Odagiri
Director- screenwriter-producer-editor: Hirokazu Kore-eda
Based on the graphic novel by Yoshiie Gouda
Producers: Toshiro Uratani
Director of photography: Mark Lee Ping-Bing
Production designer: Hiroki Kaneko
Music: world's end girlfriend
Sales: Fortissimo Films
No rating, 126 minutes