Tokyo! (2008)

Director:  Michel Gondry, Leos Carax & Bong Joon-Ho
Cast:  Various
Plot:  A cinematic triptych of three Tokyo-set stories.

Genre:  Comedy / Drama / Fantasy
Awards:  Nom. for Un Certain Regard (Cannes).
Runtime:  112min
Rating:  M18 for nudity.

Tokyo! is an omnibus film that features three short films from three different filmmakers.  One is a Korean - Bong Joon-Ho, the other two are French - Michel Gondry and Leos Carax. 

Unlike the Thai horror 4Bia or the French romantic comedy Paris Je T’aime, Tokyo! does not fall into a singular category for genre.  Each film is a creative interpretation of the lives of people living in a city of strange occurrences.

Oscar-winner Gondry starts the ball rolling with the best film of the trio - 'Interior Design'.  It has one of the weirdest plots ever conceived: a woman, together with her boyfriend, lives temporarily in one of her friend’s cramped quarters while she tries hard to contribute to society.  Slowly, she finds herself turning into a chair.  The storyline has a Lynchian feel to it, and it remains to be the most engaging among the trio.

'Interior Design' boasts eye-popping visual effects as we observe with amazement the transformation of a living human to a non-living chair.  As the lead character’s form alternates between a wooden chair and a fully nude being, we learn an important lesson: there is something gravely wrong with society when a chair becomes more useful than the person who sits on it.  Gondry’s bizarre film is a brilliant exploration of the value of one’s worth to the unappreciative world that we live in. 

Carax’s 'Merde' is the second film of Tokyo!, and is deemed the weakest of the three. Beneath the city lives a grotesque man, Merde, whose home is a sewer, an anti-Jap who wreaks havoc whenever he comes out of his slum, from licking a female bystander’s armpit to killing innocent citizens with WWII grenades.  He is finally captured and put on death row amidst calls for his release.  Despite being a terrorist, he becomes tabloid material, a religious celebrity to some but also condemned by many others. 

The premise is promising, but Carax’s film is ill-paced.  Although the use of simultaneous multiple angles in a three-way split screen during a lengthy interrogation and courtroom scene is innovative, the film is slowed down unnecessarily by employing a translator to decipher Merde’s baffling spoken language.  Finishing off with an expected twist and without a proper explanation as to why it concludes this way, 'Merde', while at times entertaining, fails to engage viewers at a more sophisticated level.

The final short film 'Shaking Tokyo' by Bong is the most ordinary, yet it is also the most beautiful shot of the trio.  In the distant future, Tokyo suffers from an earthquake almost every other day.  A man, whose reclusive behavior has forced him to stay within his comfort zone - his home - for years, relies on home delivery for daily essentials.  Even then, he doesn’t make eye contact with the deliverer.  One day, a terrible earthquake hits just when he is about to pay for a pizza.  He unintentionally makes eye contact…with a pretty young woman! 

'Shaking Tokyo' is a sweet film about love at first sight.  Here, the emotions are restrained but the images are powerful, often relying on visual associations to tell the story.  Slowly, the film reveals more of the young woman’s character and how her social behavior is considered ‘normal’ in a community that is far from that.  

'Shaking Tokyo' brings up the need for direct face-to-face communication.  This is something that is lacking in the wireless world that we now live in.  Will humanity degrade to such a point that our mouths become obsolete?  And languages become extinct?  In a way, Bong’s visionary film is a scary portrait of what a social-less society might look like.  

As a whole, Tokyo! presents three different views of Japan’s most popular city.  The odd blend of terror, optimism, strangeness, and fantasy is rarely experienced in a film.  Despite its shortcomings and a relatively weak second film, Tokyo! remains fresh and vibrant in a sea of mundane film offerings. 


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