Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Tokyo gall

This triptych sets each of its tales within the titular Japanese capital, but unlike similarly conceived recent tributes to Paris, New York and Toronto, the filmmakers arrive on the scene to reveal far more perverse invention than touristy affection toward their host city. Here, here!
Tokyo!, now available on DVD from Liberation Entertainment, is no more a cohesive masterpiece than your average omnibus feature, but, helmed by two mischievous Frenchmen and a Korean—talk about courting contentious international relations—it is bold, strange, fun and occasionally thought provoking.

Transplanting Gabrielle Bell’s graphic novel Cecil and Jordan in New York to the other side of the planet, Michel Gondry’s ‘Interior Design’ finds a typical Gondry self-appointed creative genius hoping against the odds to make it big in the big, crowded city with his ramshackle, no-budget apocalypse disaster flicks—screened with smoke machines for that twee theatrical edge. The real protagonist here however is the fledging auteur’s girlfriend, played by Steven Segal’s daughter Ayako Fugitani, who by contrast is a sort of non-being, a person with no significant ambitions of her own. She eventually seems to vanish altogether in a surreal twist that’s best discovered in the moment. I enjoyed the film, but I couldn’t help but question Gondry’s subconscious motives and the ostensible inventiveness of creating this character of a Japanese woman who only finds herself by being transformed into the perfect object of servility.

Most memorable by far is Leos Carax’s ‘Merde,’ the director’s first film in a decade and a wildly caustic bit of politically hostile monster movie chaos. Everyone’s favourite nutcase Denis Lavant, who I'd like to nominate for an Oscar, crawls out of the Tokyo sewers like some demented offspring of a violent, racist French leprechaun and Harpo Marx driven insane by painful cataracts and years of living underground. In an opening sequence of inspired anarchy he terrorizes the local citizenry by gobbling cash and flowers, stealing smoking cigarettes and then tossing the burning butts into baby carriages. He’s finally captured and put on trial, defended by one of the only people on earth to speak his language—though once everyone knows what he’s saying this only serves to make the creature even more unsympathetic. He’s condemned to death, but monsters never die easily in the Japanese cinema, nor do martyrs of its bureaucratic processes (see Oshima’s Death by Hanging for the climactic sequence’s basis). Sequels are promised. Shit!

‘Shaking Tokyo,’ directed by The Host’s Bong Joon-ho and starring Tokyo Sonata’s wonderful Teruyuki Kagawa, is as obsessed with apocalypse as its predecessors, but is as sweet and sensitive as ‘Merde’ is grotesque and outrageous. Taking the national xenophobia under fire by Carax into a much quieter place, the film concerns a hikikomori—Japanese for shut-in—who’s solitary life of reading, shitting, sleeping and building orderly walls of pizza boxes and toilet paper rolls is interrupted by the possibility of love with a pizza delivery girl in danger of becoming just as reclusive as he is. The narrative naturally lends itself to a predictable climax of classical emotional liberation, but Bong, with great help from the tightly wound but finely expressive Kagawa, does a lovely job of making the journey distinctive and compelling.

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