Thursday, March 5, 2009

Tokyo! Review

Originally published at SpoutBlog:

TOKYO! Review

The producers of “Tokyo!,” three short films by two Frenchmen and a South Korean, aim to do for Japan’s metropolis what “New York Stories” did for the Big Apple or “Paris Je T’Aime” for the City of Lights. That the two Frenchmen are indie darling Michel Gondry and former film critic/”Pola X” director Leos Carax, and the South Korean Bong Joon-Ho, who made an international splash with “The Host,” would seem to lend these three very different takes on a single subject some serious cache. Unfortunately, only two directors rise to the occasion, leaving a gaping hole in an otherwise thoughtful trilogy.

Not surprisingly, of the three directors it’s the warped Gondry, whose specialty is visualizing that fine (often nonexistent) line between life and art, who most throws himself into the task of translating the pulse of the city to the screen, via his newly-arrived protagonists Akira and Hiroko in “Interior Design.” Overstaying their welcome couch surfing at a friend’s cramped studio, they look for dead-end jobs and at cheap apartments (one of which contains a dead cat), the camera moving at typical Gondry speed, from fast motion overhead shots to slow pans, like a fractured subconscious. In the process the self-involved Akira (who pitches concepts to his girlfriend in lieu of engaging in conversation) watches his film career take off after he screens his “Metropolis”-like feature at a porn house, while the unsure Hiroko (played by Ayako Fujitani who happens to be the daughter of Steven Seagal) struggles to find her own identity.

It’s like listening inside the director’s own head as the pair roam the bustling streets, arguing about Hiroko’s “hobbies” not being dreams or ambitions. “What’s the difference?” she wonders, to which Akira replies, “You have to be able to define who you are in the world by what you do.” But when the purposeless Hiroko acquires the ability to physically transform like a character straight out of a Cronenberg flick, becoming both metaphorically “invisible” and useful, Gondry’s press notes claims of Polanski’s “Repulsion” and “The Tenant” as influences, eerie string and woodwind score aside, loses any legitimacy. Gondry is just too warmhearted a filmmaker to pull it off – he doesn’t have the ruthlessness required to delve into such psychological terror. Yet for capturing the essence of this Tokyo, that very warmth feels oh-so-right.

Unfortunately, French provocateur Leos Carax plows through his version of Tokyo with a ruthless arrogance akin to his bogeyman protagonist, named “Merde” (a title as clichéd as his Japanese sewer monster, played by Denis Lavant of “Lovers On The Bridge,” that also goes by the French word for “shit”). After opening with a slow pan of the city’s buildings set to ominous music, an overhead shot takes in a manhole, up from which pops Lavant looking like Larry Fessenden on the very worst of days. A shaky handheld camera captures the half man-half beast’s acts of gratuitous mayhem on the streets as he rips food from people’s hands, licks innocent passersby (the footage captured on cell phones makes the evening news, of course). Merde’s relatively harmless afternoon acts escalate to nighttime Molotov cocktail-throwing – with the monster skipping over the bloodied carnage like a playful kid – but despite the wondrously composed shots, Carax’s story is as empty as the tunnels in the beast’s underground lair. And once the creature is captured and forced to stand trial, leading the media to go on a feeding frenzy of its own, a mysterious lawyer from France who speaks Merde’s language (including body unfortunately) arrives in Tokyo to defend him – and, it would seem, to drive the audience mad.

Luckily for the pompous lawyer, Carax’s Tokyo is really just another version of France. As the hand-held camera that sways with the sewer man and his barrister becomes more and more grating, and the insane conversations between the two reach the realm of experimental theater workshop, Carax just keeps on obliviously rolling along (often showily using three frames onscreen simultaneously). Without any specific cultural touchstone the Tokyo courtroom – like the film itself – could be set anywhere. Indeed, the fact that Carax chose to import a French lawyer (played by Jean-Francois Balmer) to defend a creature embodied by a French actor makes “Merde” more of a French film than any exploration of Tokyo. Even the street protest by Japanese ultranationalists (Japanese ultranationalists?) to call for Merde’s hanging is downright Parisian, the pitiful creature not an international bogeyman, as Carax suggests, but rather an accidental stand-in for western imperialism. The end title card even reads that, “The Adventures of Merde in New York” is coming soon. Undoubtedly via Air France – “Merde” says a shit-load more about its enfant terrible director than it does about Japan.

The final part of “Tokyo!,” Joon-ho’s ”Shaking Tokyo,” is the least earthshaking and the most quietly profound. In voiceover the male protagonist, a “hikikomori” (shut-in) describes life inside his apartment as the camera drifts about the tiny yet organized flat, exquisite lighting tapping into the pathos of shadows. “The first eye contact in eleven years,” the nameless man says upon the arrival of a cute pizza girl, but as the middle-aged recluse pays for the delivery an earthquake rattles the room and the young woman collapses in his doorway. After running around in a panic he discovers a circle tattoo on her arm that reads “coma” below it, and literally pushes her button to wake her. Once she’s revived and gone the modern urban fairytale escalates as the hermit is forced to venture into the blinding sunlight of the big bad world to find his mysterious princess.

But unlike Gondry’s rushing Tokyo, Joon-ho’s claustrophobic quarters give way to spacious empty streets (though unlike Carax’s “Merde” the sense of space and place is apparent and palpable in both their films). After running through the streets accompanied by a lovely, light guitar score – peeking in the windows of other recluses – he finally finds the pizza girl (now hikikomori!) of his dreams, begs her to come out through the bars of her window. As self-imprisonment gives way to another earthquake, as the man pushes her “button” for love, which leads to yet another earthquake, this visualization of emotion allows the film to transcend a city and a specific cultural phenomenon to become as universal as the “dissolution of love” story at the heart of Gondry’s “Interior Design.” Now if only immature Carax hadn’t rudely interrupted the deep dialogue between these two companion pieces “Tokyo!” would shine like the city’s brightest neon sign.

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