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Sunday, August 24, 2008

TOKYO! omnibus film by Michel Gondry, Leos Carax and Bong Joon Ho

I was in a cafe at Shibuya two days ago, struggling to write the script for a new short film. It went well except for the fact that I just couldn't figure out the damn ending.

After sitting there for three hours, I thought I needed a break, and most probably inspiration. So I headed off to see TOKYO! An omnibus film featuring segments done by French filmmakers Michel Gondry, Leos Carax and Korean filmmaker Bong Joon Ho. The only connection between the three half-hour segment is that they're all set in Tokyo.

When I first heard about the film when it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival few months ago, it ended up being the one film that intrigued me most. When I saw Tan Chui Mui on Facebook chat (she was at the festival), I immediately bugged her, asking whether she had seen the film. She had, and she told me that she liked Bong Joon Ho's segment most, and Carax's one least.

Carax's segment seems to have the most divisive reactions. People either liked it a lot, or didn't like it at all. The former praising it for its audacity and searing social commentary, along with its subversion of the monster genre. The latter criticizing it for being unfunny, awkward etc. (I belong to the latter few, unfortunately) I'm not surprised though, the segment is the most challenging of them all, most likely to generate the strongest response.


Ayako Fujitani and Ryo Kase in Tokyo Interior Design

A young couple (Ayako Fujitani and Ryo Kase, whose voice I last heard in SKY CRAWLERS) move to the city and try to hunt for an apartment with less than 400 000 yen in savings (that's RM12 000). He's a filmmaker, she on the other hand, is directionless. Gondry's whimsical and quirky style are at its full display here. The film is occasionally really funny as we see the trials and tribulations the two protagonists have to face (car gets towed away, dead cat lying outside a prospective apartment).

The cheap sci-fi film made by Ryo Kase's character is similar to the low-fi films made by Jack Black and Mos Def in the other Gondry film, BE KIND, REWIND. Which is really funny. (though, once again, I was the only one in the theater to giggle. Japanese audiences are really... polite) And when he manages to secure a screening of his film... in a porn theater, he goes all out by using smoke machines (during smoking scenes, driving scenes etc.) to heighten audience experience.

But the protagonist of the film is actually the girlfriend, who finds herself useless until towards the end, where the film makes a turn to the surreal, and she finds herself being able to morph into a chair! I really like Ayako Fujitani here, and was really surprised to find out that she's the daughter of Steven Seagal (!!) (Good thing she has a wider range of emotions than her dad.) Film has a long tracking shot when the couple is conversing while walking down the streets which does well to show the chemistry between Kase and Fujitani and also their acting skills.

The third lead of the film is Ayumi Ito, whom I thought was vaguely familiar, until I remembered she was Ageha in SWALLOWTAIL and Kuno in ALL ABOUT LILY-CHOU CHOU. Aside from her cameo in Hana and Alice, I really haven't seen her in any of her post-Lily Chou Chou works, and ALL ABOUT LILY-CHOU CHOU is a 2001 film!

Satoshi Tsumabaki (THE MAGIC HOUR, SPRING SNOW, NADA SOU SOU) has a cameo as well. I think this is his fourth appearance in a film this year.

MERDE - Leos Carax

Merde means 'shit'. Denis Lavant plays this title character, which is a monster/ troll who hides in the sewers and pops out randomly at the streets of Ginza to play pranks and wreak havoc. Things get increasingly brutal with him throwing grenades at people. There is a reference to Nanking. The over-politeness of Japanese newscasters, capitalism and unabashed commercialism are also made fun of.

Merde gets arrested. There's a trial he's being defended by a lawyer who is also another troll. To be fair, the possible lack of enjoyment I have towards the film had mostly to do with it being in two languages I don't know. So in the courtroom scene where Merde speaks to the lawyer in grunts, and lawyer translates in French, and a Japanese translator translates lawyer's words in Japanese. Really frustrating. I remain lost... and was dozing off. Carax is an uncompromosing filmmaker, so I assume that as per his title, he is really throwing shit at everyone else as well.


Teriyuki Kagawa and Yu Aoi in Tokyo Shaking

This one's my favourite. I was recovering from the previous segment, and was still in a haze of drowsiness when the film gradually shakes me off from my weariness, and I grew eventually mesmerized and enthralled, until towards the end, I was totally AWED by its awesomeness. Bong Joon Ho, just like he did with his films, BARKING DOGS NEVER BITE, MEMORIES OF MURDER and THE HOST, showed his insane mise-en-scene skills, and created some really awesome images with great cinematography and a moody score even though most of the film is set inside a house. When it unexpectedly shifts to sci-fi/magical realism (that is when my jaw starts to drop), film gradually becomes an emotional metaphor of modern Japanese society.

Segment is about a hikikomori (a sociological phenomenon in mostly Japan where people choose to withdraw from social life, seeking varying degrees of confinement and isolation... frankly, I tend to think of myself as a semi-hikikomori, or a hikikomori with social skills) who hasn't ventured out of his house for 11 years. Connected to the outside world only with an antiquated phone and money sent to him by his unseen father every month. The only person he sees is a pizza delivery girl who delivers pizza to him weekly. One day she faints at his doorstep during a massive earthquake, and he is compelled to speak for the very first time.

After falling in love with her, he tries to step out of his house, and that's when the film becomes really awesome and surprising. Teruyuki Kagawa is really good as the protagonist. And Yu Aoi remains my favourite Japanese actress of her generation.

UPDATED (April 28, 2014):

Here's the entire film.