by Sam C. Mac Film Horizon Line

Tokyo! — Michel Gondry, Leos Carax, and Bong Joon-ho

April 21, 2009

It’s a pain to review omnibus films. To do so is to review (in this case at least) three separate features, weighing the hits and the misses and considering each individual piece as it relates to the broader framework. Admittedly, the trifecta of shorts which make up Tokyo! are united by location, and thus could be discussed as one, but their tone, consistency and craft are so wildly different that to do so would seem inappropriate. However, taking the work as a whole evens out to this easy equation: 1 good feature + 1 bad feature + a half-good feature = a middling movie, at best, which is distressing considering the filmmaking talent involved in this trilogy; that of Michel Gondry (The Science of Sleep, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), Leos Carax (Pola X), and Bong Joon-ho (The Host). Each director attempts to depict the metropolitan Japanese city’s congested over-population as it relates to, ironically, lonely and isolated lifestyles. The results are a mixed bag, bizarre, occasionally trifling, provocative, and even banal.

Gondry’s sitcom-worthy fable, Interior Design, about a girl who feels crippling inadequacy next to her ambitious filmmaker boyfriend, stands out as the worst of the bunch, displaying little if any of the visual panache or invention of Gondry’s best work and featuring a fanciful, far too literal conclusion (spoiler: she turns into a chair so that she can feel useful — yeah, I’m serious). Surprisingly, Carax’s short, Merde (shoved in the middle of the trilogy for some reason), is by far the best: it stars one of the greatest actors working today (French eccentric Denis Lavant) and features a slippery indictment of environmental waste that also serves as some kind of vague commentary on terrorism. The narrative follows the antics of the titular, mysterious sewer creature (Lavant) as he ventures above ground, terrorizing the citizens of Tokyo and, eventually, tossing grenades in every direction with careless abandon. The plot progresses with a linearity similar to Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark, as this clueless foreigner is put on trial and eventually sentenced to death. The story is strange, and doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but it’s weirdly affecting — haunting even.

That’s more than can be said for Bong Joon-ho’s contribution, which is probably the most socially conscious in the collection but also the most subdued and, frankly, boring: Shaking Tokyo examines the isolated existence of a Japanese hikikomori (which basically translates to a shut in, or a loner that hasn’t been outside his apartment for a very long time) who repeatedly stacks boxes of food, books and toilet paper to pass the minutes, days and years, avoiding all human contact and going so far as to lower his eyes when the pizza delivery man comes knocking at his door. Predictably, this disciplined act is neglected one day when a beautiful girl shows up in his doorway, passing out in his arms after an earthquake strikes the city. As a result, the timid hikikomori falls hopelessly in love with the young woman, so much so that he abandons his vow of seclusion and ventures outdoors for the first time in a decade to find the object of his affections. Buried in this sluggish, slickly shot character study is a commentary on the individual-mentality of Tokyo’s citizens, a suffocating, self-centered quality that leads some (enough to come up with a term for the lifestyle) to hide in their homes and never come out. Unfortunately, Bong seems generally uninterested in the story he’s telling and, like Gondry’s segment of Tokyo!, Bong’s work lacks the usual fervor he brings to his movies. Even the director’s debut film, jazzy comedy-of-manners Barking Dogs Never Bite, has considerable personality and flair, while Shaking Tokyo just feels lifeless and limp in comparison, if mildly thought-provoking. Compared to other recent omnibus experiments — hell, compared to other shorts compilations dedicated to landmark cities (Paris Je T’aime) — Tokyo! must be considered a disappointment. Lack of imagination and innovation from two of these three filmmakers is frustrating in and of itself, but when one considers the canvas they’ve been given — the hyper-kinetic and restlessly changing cityscapes of modern day Tokyo — their failure is downright unacceptable.