Monday, September 24, 2012

LIE #46: Dolls Have No Feelings? A Review of 2009’s DVD MIA “Air Doll” (and some other films)

Air Doll (2009; Hirokazu Koreeda) is what you would get if Nagisa Oshima adapted a Hans Christian Andersen or Grimm’s fairy tale: a doll gets a heart and becomes human—with all the resulting pain and suffering that that offers.
But in this case, the doll is the type you inflate and have sex with—including a removable polymer vagina; and the overall film is a bleak metaphor/comment on the routine and system-wide subconsciously reinforced dehumanization of women, grounded by an impressive performance by lead Doona Bae.

In other words, a doll gets a heart and finds out that it’s not worth it.

Like my description above might indicate, Air Doll is a unique and special film, although problematic as well.

This is a bittersweet, almost wonderful film—a kinky Lili **
that will be very tough going for those not used to the pacing of more thoughtful and philosophical Asian films, akin to Ozu’s work, or Spring Summer Fall Winter… and Spring (2003), or the more recent Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives.

Roughly 120 minute, I think Air Doll would be much more effective at only 90 minutes—
But I am, of course, only a Yankee barbarian.
There is a slow lyricism about the film that is tough for monkey minds like myself to deal with, but I never felt the film or its tangents were inconsequential or mere “padding.” There is a philosophy at work here, and rewards to be found.

Never released to DVD in the US, and probably not likely to, Air Doll could be found on-line if you search.

Nozomi is Hideo’s sex doll, but rather than deflate and put her in the box once he’s done sexing her up, he keeps her around, usually dressed in a maid’s outfit. When he’s home, Hideo speaks to her constantly, pouring out his heart. He’s middle-aged, seems to have no friends or family, and works at as a waiter in a more-upscale eatery, but is no position of power.

Although plastic and full of air, Nozomi comes “alive,”—
“Because I found a heart,” she says, a phrase that becomes the girl’s sad mantra.
Portrayed by the lovely Doona Bae, with seams on her synthetic skin and an air plug in her bellybutton, she heads out into the “real” world—even getting a job at a nearby DVD rental store. It’s a delight for film buffs with all the movie references as a lovelorn clerk teaches her about cinema—and later, other kinks.

Every night hopeful Nozomi returns to Hideo and “pretends” to be a doll again. But even when the evidence is right there, it’s only when she literally gets in his face that the waiter notices she’s “alive.”
Like many guys he doesn’t think of her as her own person…and then he gets a “Real Doll.”

Philosophical but tender, the film is a subversion of the typical male “gaze,” especially regarding doll fantasies—but overall remains too passive for my tastes; too much of a lyrical, depressive, logical path.
It would have been so much more preferable if Air Doll had spun off into Miike-esque lunacy, or like the conclusion of the highly recommended Big Man Japan, totally subverted itself.
Even if Nozomi had done something now-clichéd as grown a machine-gun arm, that would have been a welcome relief to how things just sort of…fizzle

However, Air Doll is highly recommended despite my gripes, especially for aficionados of the Cinema of Weirdness.
The film is an excellent showcase for Korean actress Doona Bae, who never splashes into bathos of self-pity, and totally taking over the viewer’s heart and sympathies.

Familiar to many as the archer from The Host, Doona Bae also has a large role in the recently released epic Cloud Atlas—but the flick you must catch her in Linda Linda Linda (photo at bottom).
Released in 2005, the film is a subtle and heartwarming musical/coming of age story that never veers into the goofball histrionics that plague “teen flicks” in the States.
If anything, by concentrating on being as realistic as possible, Linda Linda Linda feels more universal than the Hollywood product that always takes place in some bland universe where everyone is rich and their problems are ridiculous and unrealistic.

In Linda Linda Linda, Doona Bae plays a quiet Korean transfer student in a Japanese high school (a US-centric analogy would be that she’s a black girl transferred to a mostly-white school) who’s recruited into an all-girl power-pop band.
Her standout scene occurs when she sneaks solo into the school’s auditorium the night before the “big show.”
Climbing the stage, the quirky Asian schoolgirl grabs the microphone, and, usually shy and reserved, starts pattering as if she’s on a talk show, segueing into a wonderful monolog about “The Secret of My Success.”
Then, she bursts into giggles at it all.
If you don’t fall in love with Doona Bae after seeing that, you have no heart.

The complete opposite of the sad humanism of Air Doll is the film
Dr. Goldfoot and His Bikini Machine (1965; Norman Taurog) Some wonderful claymation opening credits are followed by an incredibly dumb-ass cornball flick—that almost seems like it’s trying to be a spoof of 1930s screwball comedies—heavy on the camp; but running on fumes in the genuine humor department, with far too much time spent on the personality-lacking Dwayne Hickman or Frankie Avalon.

A flick I’ve heard about forever but never seen, Dr. Goldfoot and His Bikini Machine is currently available on Nflix Strmzing—
The overall soundtrack is great, with Diana Ross and the Supremes providing the theme song during the opening credits. Designed by Gumby and Davey and Goliath creator (and Pomona College alum!) Art Clokey, the flick’s worth turning on just for the opening credits—fun in themselves, but also as a low-budget spoof of the elaborate openings the James Bond films inspired.
Clokey also engineered fabulous, better-than-the-rest-of-the-flick credits for How to Stuff a Wild Bikini, also for AIP (although he was uncredited).

The leering idiocy of Dr. Goldfoot and His Bikini Machine is of note for cinema historians because sexy leading lady Susan Hart went on to marry AIP co-founder Jim Nicholson.
After he died, Hart inherited a significant portion of the old AIP library, and her incalcitrant greed in negotiating has prevented the DVD release of many films, including the classics I Was a Teenage Werewolf and Roger Corman’s It Conquered the World.

Vincent Price is a hoot (as always) in Goldfoot, his sidekick is amusing, and the gurls are hot, and there’s some excellent Panavision cinematography, but otherwise the flick perhaps best as video wallpaper, to be observed out of the corner of the eye, and then forgotten.

Meanwhile, Air Doll was watched specifically because I needed something 180-degree in the opposite direction of what I’d just come from seeing:
Flying Swords of Dragon Gate (2011; released in US in 2012; written, produced and directed by Tsui Hark), the best action film in 3-D and IMAX that I’ve ever seen, using the technique in a much more artistic intelligent way than before—yes, better than Avatard, in my opinion
Hark creates depth and ‘in your face’ effects without having to keep the camera always moving.
A motionless camera filming a massive Buddha statue from a low angle feels overpowering; Jet Li’s headband practically slaps you as he stands still, glaring at the villain; the subtitles are even “raised!”
But even without the 3-D, this is a damn fine piece of wuxai, exquisite stuff, with an all-star cast of veterans and newer action stars, so packed with…stuff (plot, action, intrigue, comedy, head-spinning acrobatics—and more!) that with the additional 3-D and IMAX, it didn’t feel like I was going to the movies, it felt like a long-awaited rock concert, an event.

** = Comments about Lili, one of mine written in May 2012 for Sergio Leone Quiz:
16) Most effective faith-affirming movie?
If you mean by that, the film that touched my soul as no other one has, and made me actually feel good to be part of the human race—not in any intellectual “I’m glad about civilization” way, but in a spiritual, “holy moly I’m glad to be alive way!”,
I’d say Lili.
Released in 1953, directed by Charles Walters, and all about fixing broken hearts, the supremely magical Lili starred Leslie Caron (very young and lovely), Mel Ferrer and a bunch of puppets. The film is a favorite of both John Waters and H.L. Mencken (Baltimore loves Lili, eh?), and has never been available for home viewing, except for a rare showing on Turner Classic Movies.

Charming and (bitter)sweet, Lili really gets under your skin—probably because like its main character, the film is guileless: perfect for melting cold, cold hearts.

A Lonely Place to Die (2011; Julian Gilbey) falls completely apart after a good start and an interesting set-up: Mountain climbers, lead by an athletic Melissa George—who shows off some impressive rock-climbing skills—discover an eight- or nine-year-old girl who has been buried alive, but with a breathing tube.
The girl speaks in an Eastern European language the climbers don’t understand, but the breathing tube indicates this is a kidnapping of sorts, and the climbers start down the mountain to alert the cops.
But the kidnappers are a ruthless and cruel lot, and begin picking off the climbers one-by-one.

After about 20 minutes A Lonely Place to Die becomes a tiresome mess, with zero suspense. Director Gilbey excessively abuses slow-motion cinematography with random and inexplicable inserts, and the flick’s editing scheme actually reduces any tension that’s been built.
It doesn’t help that the movie’s dialog is tepid, and the characters come off as cardboard cut-outs or absolute jerks.

A major problem is how the kidnappers are dealt with: bouncing between Jason Voorhees-esque super-killers with almost magical murder powers; and blockhead morons who blast away indiscriminately at anything that moves.
A big disappointment, especially after the spectacular mountaineering footage that starts this film.

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