Hirokazu Kore-Eda is one of the world's most thoughtful directors; his previous film (Still Walking) was a subtle introspective masterwork that, with incredible artistry, plumbed the quiet depths of family. So why'd he choose to follow that gem with a magical realist curio about an enchanted life-sized sex toy who bops around Tokyo in tiny fetish outfits and lands a job as video store clerk?
The answers are as elusive as the mysteries are deep in this perplexing urban fable of alienation, lust and innocent love in a hostile world. If that sounds like a heavy payload for a fairytale to bear, it is, and the weight of pretension often tips the fragile balance between affecting and affected. Air doll Nozomi, played by the frequently naked Korean actress Bae Du-na (The Host), parades through the film with an empty guileless half-grin. As she comes alive she slowly discovers — like a kinky Pinocchio or Darryl Hannah in Splash — the many delights of the outside world, including rain, babies, Harvey Keitel flicks and the attention of her friendly co-worker, with whom she develops a hesitatingly sweet romance. Back at home, her "owner" Hideo remains oblivious to her feelings and her other life, but lovingly dotes on her, and, occasionally, after a vigorous humping, he'll reinflate her via the port in her belly button. Eventually this dual reality becomes untenable for Nozomi, and the puppet must decide to walk on her own.
Is Kore-Eda making a statement about the eternal gulf between men and women, which is universal but more noticeable in Japan, where schoolgirls are systematically sexualized, and men go to be pampered and waited on by girls in "Maid Cafés?"
Maybe. But there's so much else on the agenda here that it's far better to just sit back, absorb the gorgeous imagery and enchanting performances, and ignore the many nagging narrative questions left untended. Some will find resonance in Air Doll's riddles, and some will find it as hollow as the inflatable heroine.
Opens Friday, June 11, at the Burton Theatre, 3420 Cass Ave., Detroit; 313-473-9238; burtontheatre.com.
Corey Hall writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to email@example.com.