Japanese helmer Hirokazu Kore-eda’s ongoing interest in love, loss and souls in limbo is stretched way too thin in “Air Doll,” a beautifully lensed (by Taiwanese ace Mark Lee) and charmingly played (by South Korean icon Bae Du-na) modern fairy tale about an inflatable doll who takes on a life of her own. Recut to a trim 90 minutes, this fragile yarn would work perfectly and have a chance of an afterlife as a specialty item. In its present form, pic may not get much farther than the fest netherworld.
Kore-eda can take the most paper-thin ideas and make them play out to feature length (“After Life,” “Nobody Knows”), and part of this pic’s attraction is that he never overextends the idea (taken from a 20-page graphic short story, published in 2000, by manga artist Yoshiie Gouda) into grand tragedy or melodrama.
Also, unlike several other “living doll” tales of men fascinated by life-sized female playthings — especially Luis Berlanga’s 1975 “Life Size,” with Michel Piccoli — Kore-eda’s movie doesn’t even flirt with the sexual or social subtexts. Pic has an almost childlike purity, matching the doll’s own worldview, that’s maintained until the end.
Introduced with a casual naturalness, middle-aged Hideo (Itsuji Itao) waits tables in a Western eatery and has a perfectly happy existence with Nozomi at home. He chats with her over the dinner table, makes love to her in bed and says goodbye to her every morning. Thing is, Nozomi is actually an inflatable doll.
Just after he’s left for work one day, the doll starts to twitch in bed and morphs (sans f/x) into a real woman (Bae), who stares in wonder at the real world and, donning a teeny-weeny maid’s uniform, walks around the quiet nabe, imitating people’s speech and behavioral patterns.
“I found myself with a heart I was not supposed to have,” says the new Nozomi, later adding, in a foretaste of her loss of innocence, “Because I found a heart, I told a lie.”
As Nozomi gradually loses her mechanical walk (mimicked by the accompanying music) and behaves more like a human, she also develops a parallel life away from Hideo’s apartment. Getting a job in a small videostore, she falls for fellow worker Junichi (Arata, “Distance,” “After Life”), who doesn’t seem the least fazed to discover she’s really an air doll.
Nozomi tries to find meaning in her new existence — even visiting her “maker,” Sonoda (Joe Odagiri, in a delightful cameo as a kind of benign Geppetto figure) — and reconcile it with her ongoing duties as Hideo’s companion. But she starts to realize her parallel lives may be incompatible.
Though Bae spends notable sections of the movie in her birthday suit, the actress brings a wide-eyed innocence to her role that (with a compliant wink from Kore-eda toward his audience) prevents the film from becoming mired in its sexual connotations. Even Nozomi’s introduction to human carnality is handled with a magical simplicity.
Offbeat beauty Bae, who’s carved a career in quirky roles (“The Host,” “Take Care of My Cat,” “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance”), is perfectly cast here as Nozomi, holding the screen in a tour de force of ingenuous wonderment at the complex world she’s discovered; other roles are handled OK. But at more than two hours, the jam is simply spread too thin.