How can you really be sure who you are when your image of self is entirely dependent on external validation? In this brave new age of video technology, none of us are any longer custodians of our own image, we leave impressions of ourselves everywhere we go and most particularly online where anyone and everyone is free to do with them as they please. Intellectually, we all know this already. We use the internet ourselves, not always responsibly, and have become so used to seeing CCTV cameras on every street corner that we no longer register their presence. We live our lives under observation, but even so the realisation that our image has been captured without our knowledge can be a profound violation.
So it is for Ai (Tomona Hirota), a permanently exhausted young woman who has returned to her Osaka home after failing to make it in Tokyo (or rather, as she points out, Kanagawa). Ai is currently taking acting classes while making ends meet with a side gig as a shopping mall mascot (another masked role). She spends her nights smoking while wearing a face mask and making anonymous connections with strangers via cybersex websites. That is until she goes on a rare night out with some people from acting class and meets a handsome man in a bar (Shugo Oshinari) who tells her that it’s too early for names before taking her back to his improbably swanky apartment for a one night stand. Ai notices that there’s a strange looking camera pointed at them from a nearby shelf but thinks nothing of it, and after rather mechanistic sex clasps hands with her new lover as if an intimate connection has finally been forged.
It’s therefore a double shock for her when she spots a mysterious video on porn website which appears to have been shot in the apartment where she spent the previous night. Pressing play her worst fears are confirmed, a sex tape featuring Ai and the guy from the club seems to have been uploaded online. She tries to confront him and is told that the camera is a vintage 8mm model for display purposes only which contains no film and admittedly would be very difficult to process. Confused, she leaves, but is even more disturbed when more videos start appearing online which could not have been taken by the static camera on the shelf. She then discovers that the guy has vanished, the apartment wasn’t even his but is being illegally sublet on Airbnb by a company registered in Indonesia.
That last piece of info Ai gets after going to the police to whom she gives her name as “Park”. Though the policewoman is sympathetic enough and never directly judges Ai, she’s embarrassed to have to explain that she went home with a guy whose name she still doesn’t know and has no other evidence except the video site. Trying to be reassuring, the policewoman reminds her that there are billions of hours of video already online so the chances of someone seeing hers are extremely small and, in any case, they don’t even think it looks like her in the video anyway.
Rather than reassured, Ai becomes even less certain. If that isn’t her in the video, then who is she? She takes the police up on their recommendation of a support group but finds it a bizarrely uncanny experience in which each of the other participants tells a near identical story about an ex posting an old photo on social media which contributed to the failure of their present relationship. The support group mirrors her acting class in which an abrasive director instructed them all to take on personas which were the opposite of their own, literally swapping identities. Pushed into a corner, one of the students eventually snapped and attacked the teacher whose intense approach was, according to some, also an act designed to elicit the best performance.
If we’re all “acting”, and our image is susceptible to theft, then what really can we say constitutes our “identity” in the digital age? The support group is fond of chanting that “You haven’t changed” hinting at an essential presence that exists outside of immediate perception, but everyone in the support group is verging towards some kind of creepy group think defined by “shared” trauma. In the end, Ai resorts to desperate measures, literally taking control of her image by changing it, but can she really be said to have escaped herself and should she even want to? Wearing the face mask eerily reminiscent of Eyes Without a Face, she gazes out of her balcony window and thinks she sees “herself” walk past on the street below. Thanks to the powers of technology we have made division of ourselves, no longer the primary hosts of our own image.
Original trailer (English subtitles)