July 2, 2009
Tokyo! (2009) ****1/2
Note: Tokyo! is a triptych of three short films from three different directors. The following are my ratings for each short.
Interior Design ***
Directed by Michel Gondry
Directed by Leos Carax
Shaking Tokyo *****
Directed by Bong Joon-ho
Imagine 2007's Paris Je T'aime set in Tokyo, Japan with thirty to forty minute short films rather than five minute ones. Now imagine these films injected with equal parts heroin and cocaine, and you might just begin to understand the brilliant mindtrip that is Tokyo! French directors Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Science of Sleep, Be Kind Rewind) and Leos Carax (Boy Meets Girl, Lovers on the Bridge, Pola X), along with Korean director Bong Joon-ho (The Host), examine this vibrant yet enigmatic city from outsider perspectives. Though each short film is certainly unique in comparison to the other two, all three paint with cynical brushstrokes which allows Tokyo! to play out like a middle finger directed at Paris Je T'aime's sentimentalized exploration of urban love.
It's perhaps surprising that no Japanese director signed on to direct; however, I'd argue that a filmmaker with an ingrained patriotic love of Japan's capital city might not be able to effectively shine a light on Tokyo's profound sins. There's no arguing that Tokyo! is an angry exercise in condemnation, and none of the directors shy away from the sardonic and the misanthropic. Let's just say that the Japanese government won't be touting these shorts in any of its tourism literature!
Just about everyone reveres Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and The Science of Sleep certainly has its apologists, though I'm not one of them. Yet, I'm starting to wonder whether or not Michel Gondry has what it takes to maintain a lasting career as a critical darling. Be Kind Rewind was simply bad, and his addition to Tokyo!, titled Interior Design, despite its strong points, comes off trite when judged alongside Merde and Shaking Tokyo.
The plot revolves around a young couple relocating to Tokyo--he's an aspiring avant-garde filmmaker and she's an ambitionless "magazine picture cutter outer." Since they have nowhere to live, they squat in their friend's unimaginably small apartment. At first, the two of them savor their new experiences, that is until reality catches back up with them when their car is impounded, their friend grows tired of them and they can't find anywhere to live on their own. Eventually, one of them finds a way to succeed in spite of Tokyo's dehumanizing obstacles. What does she choose to do? Well, let's just say that if I asked you to guess one thousand times, you probably wouldn't even come close!
All Gondry movies I've seen tend to ruminate in capricious whimsy--so much so that one ought to expect just about anything to happen on screen. Never one to thrive according to established rules of filmmaking, it's simply too bad that Gondry plays it so safe this time around. I'll admit that the ending was clever, and out of the three shorts, Interior Designs makes the most accessible condemnation of Japan's addiction to moralless progress; yet, there's really only one inspired moment within a film that's over thirty minutes long. The performances are fine, and the characters are well written, but with a director as talented as Gondry, sufficient simply isn't good enough, especially when the two shorts that follow are both sublime masterpieces.
Merde is downright bizarre... it's the story of a crazy redheaded foreigner living in the sewers below Tokyo, who emerges sporadically to hobble the streets finding flowers and money to munch and people to lick. Yep, you read that last sentence right! He becomes the stuff of legend as well as a media freakshow--that is until he finds a bunch of grenades and throws them into the crowded streets killing many innocent civilians. Eventually he's caught by the police, becoming a cultural sensation, dividing public opinion between those who want to see the man hanged, and those that feel his actions are justified due to the seeming injustices of the Japanese government.
At first, the police can't get the man to communicate. A French lawyer is thus flown in claiming that he is able to speak and understand the man's nonsensical language. Eventually the crazy man voices his terroristic motivations much to the chagrin of the members of the Japanese legal system. When he's condemned to hang, most of those who come to watch his execution presumably believe that everything will be over once he is dead. Perhaps cries of injustice can't be silenced all that easily.
Denis Levant gives as brave and effective a performance as one could ask for as the crazy man, whose name we learn is Merde, which is the French word for sh*t. The mood and atmosphere of Carax's direction almost blows the mind completely, and the fuming rage which radiates, though uncomfortable at times, cannot be denied. The media, populism, bureaucracy, religion and especially xenophobia are all skewered and set to roast slowly over an open flame. Ironically, though, Merde ought to be called a very dark comedy. Moments of genuine, biting humor help make an irate expose compulsively watchable and truly enjoyable! Some may criticize Merde as condoning terrorism, which it certainly comes close to doing; however, the character of Merde, presumably driven mad by the iniquities of the world, has some legitimate grievances that ought to be paid attention to no matter what crimes he committed. Those in the film that choose to ignore Merde's call for justice just might encounter this creature of the sewers again in the future.
Joon-ho's Shaking Tokyo is both strikingly beautiful and profoundly sad. A reclusive man, who calls himself a hikikomori, lives off money sent to him by his estranged father. He never leaves his house, surviving on the fact that food can be delivered. He never once makes eye contact with the delivery people. Every Saturday, he orders a pizza, and one Saturday, while looking down in order to avoid eye contact, he sees that his delivery person is wearing a garter belt. He looks up, and for the first time in ten years, he meets another person's gaze. Almost immediately, the delivery girl passes out in his apartment. After pressing a tattooed button on her leg, she wakes from her coma and tells him that his apartment is perfect. Books, pizza boxes and toilet paper are all impeccably organized in ways that ought to be described as beautiful. Once she leaves, he finds himself immobile for a number of days because of the encounter he just made. Therefore, on a day other than Saturday, he orders a pizza which is delivered this time by a man who barges into the apartment to escape the rain and make a phone call. The recluse eventually finds out where the delivery girl lives, and he ventures out onto the streets of Tokyo in search of a second encounter with the girl. Rather than finding out that he's been missing out as a shut in, he learns that perhaps he's one of many, many other hikikomoris that live close by. Now that he's stepped outside of his shelter, maybe he can save others. On the other hand, maybe the enemy is stronger and more powerful than he anticipated.
I'd love to visit Tokyo someday... it seems like such an awesome city. Everything is in neon, and it's awe-inspiring when one contemplates how successfully Tokyo has built on top of itself, allowing so many to live in such a small place. In a way, as far as architectural pragmatism goes, Tokyo is a perfect city--much like the man's apartment. Shaking Tokyo peels away the city's perfect outer layer to explore what's rotting underneath. Perfection, by definition, eliminates imperfections; though, when the imperfections are flawed human beings, and when the stench of decay becomes so odious, perhaps only an earthquake, which shakes the world deep down at its core, can make any lasting difference. Visually, Shaking Tokyo is a triumph, providing sequences of pure ironic beauty.
Since I'm even more of a Tokyo outsider than these three directors, I can only speculate when I guess that the city of Tokyo, seen as a whole, perhaps isn't as bad as these short films make it out to be. That being said, it's also not as unblemished as it appears. Tokyo! works both as great cinema and non-violent protest. I loved Paris Je T'aime as much as Tokyo!, if not more; however, Paris Je T'aime is as naively sanguine as Tokyo! is morosely damning.