Reviewed by Adrian Sim
Director: Kitano Takeshi
Writing Credits: Kitano Takeshi
Starring: Kanno Miho, Nishijima Hideotoshi, Mihashi Tatsuya
Year released: 2002
Runtime: 114 min
Rating: *1½ (out of four stars)
You may like a film, or you may hate a film, or you may be indifferent to it. How you react probably depends upon several factors, including your personality, your previous experiences, and your current situation. However, when you assess a film, more often than not, you take a stance first, and then you muster all the arguments to support your bias. It is virtually impossible to change your conviction with polemics or logic.
Dolls is a good example where critical receptions tend to be quite polarized. There are those who lavish praise upon it, and then there are the detractors, like myself. Yes, I concede the cinematography is good (not great). Sad to say, Dolls struck me more as an excuse for Kitanos perpetuation of visual calisthenics (think Hana-Bi and Kikujiro).
In terms of narrative, Dolls does not offer anything new as its three love stories touch on trite themes of devotion, obsession, and regret. It is a hodgepodge of inadequately developed ideas; the stories are rather shallow and contrived, the characters are poorly developed and the relationships are never fully realized. Of the three love stories, the one involving Sawako and Matsumoto, the "bound beggars", is the most promising. It is rife with mysticism. However, the chemistry between the two leads is sorely lacking, especially in the scenes of reminiscence.
There are some laughable "symbolic" scenes that seem to be trying too hard to call attention to themselves. One such scene involves a yakuza boss murder. In that scene, a sequence of shots suggesting the yakuza boss assassination is immediately followed by a static shot of a maple leaf descending into a pond. My understanding is the "redness" of the maple leaf signifies the "bloodied" assassination attempt. This montage of shots just came across as gratingly self-referential. Another example would be the cross fading of the fans face in the shot where cleaners are brushing off the obsessed fans bloodstains on the roadside.
Director Kitano could have synthesized the love stories more covertly, instead of relying on boisterous semiotics and epochal coincidences to string the already drab stories. A film that gets it right in this aspect is Cheng Wen Tang's Somewhere Over The Dreamland. In that film, although both the stories and aesthetics are kept spare, both aspects are not compromised. The spare aesthetics leavens the story as much as the spare story leavens the aesthetics. The "spareness" leaves a lot of room for the viewers' imagination and that approach is certainly intriguing. Thus, there is a consistent underlying "mysticism" in the Somewheres narrative.
The same can't be said for Dolls. The overt "look-at-me" aesthetics tend to override the lumpish stories. Worse still, the odd use of stark realism, i.e. the bloodbath involving the yakuza shootout, further de-emphasizes the supposed allegorical tone of Dolls. Are we supposed to believe that lovelorn couples behave like the "bound beggars" in "real" life, e.g. bound together by a red rope, donning "imaginary" bunraku costumes and walking aimlessly? Even if the story of the "bound beggars" is allegorical, then what do we make of the allusions to the other starkly realistic stories? The "bound beggars" story could have stood by itself and been developed further.
Although some found Dolls minimalist romanticism moving, I found Dolls neither entirely minimalist nor romantically moving. It is precariously gaudy (non-minimalist) in the visual department but minimally plotted, acted, characterized and paced. To me, Dolls is just a vacant pretty-looking picture that neglects to develop content and strives too hard on the aesthetics, to the detriment of the whole. Dolls sole redeeming factor is probably its newfangled approach to the above-mentioned love themes, i.e. its intertextual reference(s) to the bunraku play.
Note: The whole Dolls affair appear to be stultified by such vastly uneven tones:
1) "reality" vs. "allegory" -> a confusing mix of both
2) "story" vs. "aesthetics" -> too much of the latter...