[An indieWIRE review from Reverse Shot.]
The recent “Eros” and “Three…Extremes,” occupy the “failed attempt” end of the tripartite omnibus canon, so it’s a pleasant surprise to report that “Tokyo!”, featuring the talents of fabulists Michel Gondry, Bong Joon-ho, and the too-long-absent Leos Carax proves positive that the logic behind these enterprises isn’t necessarily fallacious–that asking a trio of auteurs to variate around a theme can result in a film bigger than the sum of its individual segments. For all the misconceived episodes from famous auteurs (Soderbergh’s clunker in “Eros,” the truly abhorrent Park Chan-wook bit in “Three…Extremes”) and subsequent pitting and ranking of individual parts against each other to the detriment of the whole, sometimes, on rare occasions, the ends do justify the means.
“Tokyo!”, as you might expect given the exclamation point, is a tribute to the titular metropolis, but given the talent involved, “tribute” should remain loosely defined. The directors are a Korean, a French expat (is Gondry an American filmmaker by this point?), and a French recluse, but even given the group’s penchant for wanly surrealist tones that recall the city’s most famous contemporary literary avatar, Haruki Murakami, their observations about Tokyo’s urban scale, anomie, and the like aren’t exactly headline news. The commentary (save Carax’s grubby terroristic attack on Japanese xenophobia) is expected, but what makes “Tokyo!” worthwhile is the chance to witness three gifted directors attempting commissioned work and churning out enjoyable, well-crafted films that encapsulate in miniature what made them singular talents in the first place. No small feat.
In “Interior Design,” Gondry investigates, with his characteristic handmade whimsy, the Tokyo housing market through the story of two youths from the provinces. Hiroko and her aspiring filmmaker boyfriend Akira head to the big city with little money in the hopes of eking out some sort of existence. While Akira finds some ego-boosting success shopping his movie around to grimy porn houses willing to change up their programming on the off-hours, Hiroko, left to search for an apartment solo, finds herself feeling increasingly alienated. Gondry’s forcibly clean, mundane compositions suggest realism gone slightly askew, but his zone out into the ordinary only opens room for one of his signature bait and switches, a turnabout that finds Hiroko with an odd purpose at last.
In “Shaking Tokyo,” Bong Joon-ho tackles the hikikomori phenomenon (individuals withdrawing from social life) via a shut-in whose only connection to the outside world is signaled by the perfectly stacked, identical pizza boxes filling his apartment. When his usual delivery man is replaced by a pretty young girl, a tentative love story ensues. Bong, who so fully confused a sunny day on the crowded banks of the Han with a rampaging his fish monster in “The Host,” marshals a similar sense of odd marvel by punctuating his minor romance with two earthquakes. The story may not amount to much, but it proves that Bong, who has thus far presented skewed takes on wicked socio-comedy, police procedural, and creature feature, is a filmmaker that need be paid attention to.
The best (and worst) is saved for last: Leos Carax’s “Merde” represents a return to something after the decade-long absence since his masterpiece “Pola X.” “Merde” imagines Carax regular Denis Lavant as a mad sewer creature whose assaults on the city populace graduate quickly from merely obscene licking and shoving to Godzilla-esque destruction once he stumbles onto an underground munitions dump. The rise and takedown of the sputtering creature would have been enough to fill an entire segment, but Carax goes a bit further (he always does), putting the creature on trial and providing him with a freakish French defense attorney (Jean-Francois Balmer), the only other being on Earth, it is posited, who speaks Lavant’s gibberish language. It’s a welcome return for the actor-director pair, and existing somehow at the nexus of French/Kobaian band Magma and Oshima’s “Death by Hanging,” “Merde” is ugly, brutish, outlandish, borderline insufferable, and possibly essential.