Saturday, October 9th, featured the AAIFC – Asian American Independent Feature Conference-is a one-day think tank and networking conference for filmmakers on the state of creating Asian American independent feature content. Two shorts programs “Combination Platter” and “Queer and Sexy” precede the Centerpiece Film “Air Doll,” an official selection at the 2009 Cannes film festival.
Writer-director Hirokazu Koreeda (“Nobody Knows”,” Still Life’’) adapted Yoshiie Gouda’s graphic novel “Gouda’s Philosophical Discourse: The Pneumatic Figure of a Girl’’ to create the dark fairy tale “Air Doll.” Koreeda’s austere documentary skills and philosophical melancholy transcends a plot that verges on porn Pinocchio.
Korean actress Bae Doona (“The Host”, “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance”) gives an astonishing near-silent performance of child-like sweetness as the abused Sex Doll whose emerging humanness calls into question the people around her. Koreeda conceived of the film with Bae Doona in mind. In Japan, her wide-set neotonous eyes and foreign accent add a layer of exotica to her tone-perfect performance.
When beleaguered waiter Hideo (Itsuji Itao) comes home from a rough day at work, he dresses he, tells her about his day over a leisurely dinner, then has sex with her. His cramped apartment is a virtual shrine to the doll who he believes will love him and make no demands. (In fact, when he discovers she’s come alive, instead of celebrating her transformation, sullen Hideo asks her to turn back into a doll.)
Carefully undressing his faux ladylove, (he leaves on her stockings) Hideo climbs aboard, grinding away to the odd sound of inflated plastic, crushed by his weight, rubbing against skin. In one of the saddest, most startling moments in the film, Hideo removes her plastic vagina and soaps it clean. It’s artful that Koreeda shows us this sex-act with such literalness, early on, letting the fabular quality take over as the story continues.
One day, the tucked in Nozomi blinks her wide-set eyes. Tracking a rain drop on a windowpane, she gets out of bed, walks over to the window and looks out, murmuring her first word “Utsu-ku-shii” (‘beautiful.’)
Hiding her plastic seams with make-up, blow-up ingénue Nozomi (her name means wish or hope in Japanese) stumbles out into the loneliness of Tokyo, seen afresh in DP Mark Lee Ping-Bing’s graceful tracking shots and poetic imagery. Dressed in her erotic French Maid costume, Nozomi wanders Bambi-like through her working class neighborhood, mimicking passersby as she attempts to become human. Mincing like the kimono-ed shopper she followed, Nozomi discovers a video store (Cinema Circus!) where the pleasingly compliant doll gets a job. The avuncular store manager (Ryo Iwamatsu) and the lonely clerk Junichi (Arata-“John Rabe”, “After Life”) give her an education in life and DVDs and slowly shy Junicho’s friendship morphs to love.
Her loneliness counterpoints that of the people she meets: a bulemic “hikikomori” (Japanese shut-in), a middle-aged secretary mourning the loss of her looks (Kimiko Yo), a compulsive confessional crime-obsessed woman (Japanese diva Sumiko Fuji), and a wise, lonely old man (Masaya Takahasi.) Seated with the man on a bench she tries to explain herself, stating with innocent literalness, “I’m empty inside.” He understands “These days, everybody is.” Koreeda regular Susumu Terajima plays a crime-movie obsessed policeman client of the video store.
Outing herself to her would be lover, Nozomi and Junicho discover their own, exquisite, risky sort of love play. As Junicho lingers over Nozomi’s belly nozzle, slowly blowing her back up, Nozomi narrates “Life contains its own absence, which only another can fulfill.” Inflated with Junicho’s breath of life, Nozomi revels in the love-filled world around her. Parsing the world around her (like that other innocent Chauncey Gardiner in “Being There”) Nozomi’s literal musings take on an air of wisdom.
Finally Nozomi tracks down the Air Doll factory and meets her creator. (Odagiri Joe.) “Welcome Home” he says as she marvels at the unfinished versions of herself. “Was there something, anything, that was beautiful?” he asks, complacent at meeting one of his ‘daughters’. Nozomi nods knowingly. “Having a heart is heartbreaking” the matured Nozomi marvels staring over a bridge.
Koreeda masters the film’s shifts in tone. Nozomi’s foray into what it means to be human turns gradually darker, as she experiences many of life’s sharp contrasts in her own short life. A spoilt little girl (Miu Naraki) trades a doll from her estranged mother for a flashy junk ring, reminding Nozomi of the fate of dolls to be used and abandoned. Nozomi, fully human, yet easily punctured, assumes maternal responsibility. The tragic ending image is suitably haunting. “Beautiful,” says a passerby. You’ll agree.
“Air Doll” is Koreeda’s most lyrical film, blessed with a score by the one-man Japanese band “World’s End Girlfriend” and cinematography by the superb Taiwanese cinematographer Mark Lee Ping-Bing (“I’m In the Mood for Love”), whose creeping camerawork here seem to mirror Nozomi’s first hesitant steps. Framed by towering high-rises, Lee Ping-Bing portrays one of Tokyo’s last earthy neighborhoods of freestanding buildings (the shitamachi or “low-city” left over from the Edo-era.)
Koreeda’s adaptation taps the mainstream of Japanese Pop obsessions. Haunted by Jules Verne, Philip K. Dick and the Comte de Villiers (“The New Eve),” Japanese Manga and Anime artists have been fascinated by automata, cyborgs, robots and living dolls think “Ghost In the Shell”, “Evangelion”, “The Vision of Escaflowne” and “Metropolis.” (Cyber-Punk re-animated Freud’s ‘uncanny’ doubles (doppelgangers) favored by Gothic masters Hoffman, Von Kleist etc.)
Ian McCrudder’s “The Things We Carry”, produced by Athena Lobit, written and starring Alyssa Lobit closes the festival on Sunday night. Based on true events, the drama follows a woman’s trip home to deal with death of her drug addicted mother and the search from a mysterious package her mother left her, preceded by the experimental documentary short “Kuna Ni Nanang” (My Mother Said), by Jessica Sison.
Founded by filmmakers Koji Steven Sakai (screenwriter “The People I’ve Slept With “) and Quentin Lee (“Ethan Mao”,” Drift”, and “Flow”) in 2008 to showcase Asian / Asian American film works that have not yet had a chance to show in Los Angeles.
“Los Angeles is a postmodern collage of cultures and identity,” says founder Quentin Lee. “Even within the broader umbrella of the ‘Asian American’ community, there are Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Filipino, Vietnamese, Laotian and Cambodian Americans. Further diversifying the community are the divisions between first generation immigrants and those who were born here. ” “What Am I? Am I Japanese American? Am I Asian American? Am I American? ID Film Fest is meant to explore those similarities and differences; and through both, my hope is that everyone will be able to answer the basic question: ‘What are you?'” adds co-founder Koji Sakai.
This year’s ID Film Fest filmmakers and actors will include: PJ Raval, Jessica Sanders, Brent Anbe, William Lu, Feodor Chin, James Huang, Kerwin Berk, Hirokazu Koreeda, Kit Hui, Ming Lai, Eugenia Wan and Terrence Yin.
Highlights of this year’s ID Film Fest included the BATTLE OF THE PITCHES 2 where filmmakers will get a chance to participate in a live screenwriting pitch session with industry execs. Top five pitches in competition: Amy Anderson’s “Life with Amy” directed by Kelly Li; Jared Asato “Supreme” directed by Kelly Li; Ben Hsu “East Wilshire” directed by Anthony Bui; William Lu’s “Showstoppers” directed by William Lu; and Roy Vongtama’s “The Zone” directed by Ignatius Lin. Audience voting will factor in the awarding of some prizes.
Finalists for the API PILOT SHOOT OUT will present trailers of their work in competition.