Thursday, October 24, 2019

The Films of Bong Joon-ho: Tokyo! (2008)

Tokyo! (2008) 
Directed by: Michel Gondry (Interior Design) and Leos Carax (Merde) and Joon-ho Bong (Shaking Tokyo). 
Written by: Michel Gondry based on the graphic novel by Gabrielle Bell (Interior Design) and Leos Carax (Merde) and Joon-ho Bong (Shaking Tokyo).
Starring: Ayako Fujitani (Hiroko - Interior Design), Ryo Kase (Akira - Interior Design), Ayumi Itô (Akemi - Interior Design), Nao Ohmori (Hiroshi - Interior Design), Satoshi Tsumabuki (Takeshi - Interior Design), Motomi Makiguchi (Clochard - Interior Design), Denis Lavant (Merde – Merde), Jean-François Balmer (Maître Voland – Merde), Renji Ishibashi (L'avocat général - Merde), Toshiyuki Kitami (Le procureur - Merde), Kyûsaku Shimada (Le directeur de prison - Merde), Azusa Takehana (Le présentatrice TV - Merde), Yû Aoi (La livreuse de pizza - Shaking Tokyo), Teruyuki Kagawa (L'homme - Shaking Tokyo), Naoto Takenaka (Le patron de la pizzeria - Shaking Tokyo).
It is somewhat odd that an omnibus movie called Tokyo, which features a trio of short films set in and about the Japanese city, contain no films by a Japanese filmmaker – opting instead for two Frenchman and a Korean director. And yet, for the most part this strange decision works – as the trio of films are all about the alienating effect the city can have – making everyone feel like an outsider, like they don’t belong there. The filmmakers in question are Michel Gondry, Leos Carax and Joon-ho Bong, and while none of the segments come close to being among their best work, they are all interesting in their own way.
Gondry’s segment is called Interior Design, and is about a young Japanese couple who are struggling to find an apartment in the expensive, overcrowded city, and have been crashing at a friend’s place. Akira (Ryo Kase) is an aspiring filmmaker (which gives Gondry a chance to do what he apparently loves most – make a parody of low budget art films in all their pretentious glory). His girlfriend Hiroko (Ayako Fujitani) is supportive of his career and ambitions, and they seem happy enough. But the apartment search drags on – and she begins to feel more and more useless and aimless, realizing that she doesn’t have many ambitions of her own. Eventually this emotional toll turns physical – and she literally starts changing in a way that allows Gondry many chances to be funny and whimsical, in a story that may have been better served with a more serious touch.
Carax’s segment entitled Merde is about the title character (played by Denis Lavant, in a great performance, that is kind of a dry run for part of the pairs brilliant collaboration Holy Motors a few years later). Merde is a milky eyed monster, emerging from the sewers of Tokyo to terrify residents. In the single best scene in the entire movie, he emerges and take a long walk down the crowded street (all in one unbroken shot) as he terrorizes everyone – stealing cigarettes, sandwiches, popping balloons, hitting babies, etc. Eventually, he’ll go even farther that that – and will be captured, and out on trial. He doesn’t speak a language anyone can understand – other than a bizarre French lawyer (Jean-François Balmer), who looks like a not too-distant relative. An extended courtroom scene follows – and drags the film to a halt, although you have to admire the persistence of putting it on the screen.
The overall best sequence is by Joon-ho Bong entitled Shaking Tokyo. It stars Teruyuki Kagawa as a hikikomori – that he is explains is someone who has retreated from society, and never ventures from their home anymore. He survives on money from his dad, and lives a regimented life – and has for 10 years – on routine, and no human contact. That is, until he makes eye contact with the pizza delivery girl one day – and then an earth quake that knocks her unconscious hits, and he has to care for her for a short period of time. Japan was a forerunner for this type of lonely, isolated young man – cutting himself off from the outside world, and wanting no human contact – but the rest of the world may well have caught up in the last decade. Of the three, it at least offers some hope – and also seems to be the one most grounded in reality.
The three films fit together in an odd way. They are all clearly made by outsiders from Tokyo, and they are about feeling like outsiders in Tokyo. Carax even goes so far that the two leads in his segment aren’t even Japanese at all. When I first saw this film – a decade ago – I didn’t much care for Carax’s segment. Perhaps I didn’t get it, or perhaps I was just annoyed by it. This time, I half liked it – everything leading up to the courtroom is excellent – but that courtroom scene still drags. I’m also a little less enamored with the whimsy of Gondry’s segment – and again, perhaps that’s because if the last decade has shown us anything about Gondry its that he really needs a harsher voice – like Charlie Kaufman (who he wrote his best film, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind with) or else his films become so lightweight they simply blow away. And I like Bong’s segment a little more – it really does seem the saddest, that someone would disappear so completely into themselves. And the finale, while hopeful, also shows how it isn’t an isolated issue.
None of them are as good as the director’s best work, and I do kind of wish that someone had presented a more positive view of the city – perhaps an insider. What the films ultimately ends up convincing you of it that you shouldn’t move to Tokyo – it’s just a group of sad, lonely people, monsters who come from the sewers, and chairs.

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