See our Best of Detroit 2020 winners.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Three for the show

Japanese triptych has a lot more going for it than at first meets the eye

Posted By on Wed, Apr 22, 2009 at 12:00 AM

Tokyo's a city of mutants. At least, that's what the three filmmakers who have been anthologized here seem to think. Invited to offer their view of Japan's sprawling megalopolis, Michel Gondry, Léos Carax and Bong Joon-ho have created a triptych of exaggerated urban alienation and estrangement. Hardly the love letter that was Je'Taime Paris, the trio created a cramped world of absurd magical-realism, aimless solitude and cultural disconnection. It doesn't always work, but it sure keeps your attention. And, whether the directors intended to or not, their themes and approaches summon the stylized fiction of Haruki Murakami, the literary authority on contemporary Japanese neuroses.

As with most anthologies of this type — New York Stories, Mystery Train, Night on Earth — the tales don't necessarily fit together, favoring, instead, the stylistic and narrative fetishes of their creators. And yet, there is thematic connective tissue here, as the characters in each vignette cope with detachment from themselves and their fellow man. You may not get a picture postcard lay of Tokyo's land, but you will experience the atmosphere and psychology of one of the world's most urbanized societies, a place that seems to invite eccentricity, then do everything it can to quash it.

First up is Michel Gondry's "Interior Design," a surprisingly restrained doodle that follows the rudderless girlfriend (Ayako Fujitani) of an ambitious young filmmaker. Marginalized and friendless, she undergoes a surreal Kafkesque transformation that, at first, horrifies but then satisfies her inability to find her place. Feminist commentary or quirky artifice? Gondry could be reacting to Japan's constricted culture and environment. What's surprising is his trademark flights of fancy don't overwhelm this minor-key tale.

The middle and craziest offering is Léos Carax's "Merde," a politicized monster movie and tongue-in-cheek spoof. A feral sewer dweller (the unnervingly bizarre Denis Lavant) terrorizes Tokyo's downtown — first by stealing cigarettes, flowers and money, later by tossing grenades into crowds — to the theme from Godzilla. When the grungy "creature" is caught and put on trial, it's discovered that he only speaks his own incomprehensible language. Good thing French attorney Voland (Jean-Francois Balmer) — first seen with a decapitated cat's head in hand — can translate, offering a spirited but futile defense. His client is accused of everything from supporting al Qaeda to joining the Aum cult. Merde's only reply is to claim hatred for "innocent people." His fate is surprisingly severe. Loony as the segment is, Carax has very big fish to fry, commenting on our post-9/11 paranoia, the sensationalistic media, and society at large, which, he charges, is responsible for creating its own monsters.

Bong Joon-ho finishes with his austere and intense "Shaking Tokyo," which, despite its more outrageous conceits, focuses on character instead of whimsy. An obsessive shut-in (Teruyuki Kagawa) catches a glimpse of a pizza delivery girl's garter and falls in love. However, his attempts to re-engage with the outside world seem to cause powerful earthquakes. Can you say metaphor? Still, Bong Joon-ho gracefully balances Kagawa's pain and longing against the tectonic shifts going on inside and outside his sad-faced world. Oh, there's also a character controlled by push-button tattoos and pizza-delivery robot.

It's odd that these three foreign filmmakers all encountered metropolitan Tokyo as a place for fantastical reinvention and surreal self-expression. From Gondry's light-handed poetry to Carax's insanely mannered parody to Bong's moody contemplation, the tales are decidedly nonliteral in a city that seems hyperliteral in scope and complexity. And while, individually, each vignette comes across as freakishly frivolous, added up together there's a lot more going on than meets the eye.

Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), at 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday, April 24 and 25, and at 5 p.m. on Sunday, April 26. Call 313-833-3237.

Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

Tags:

We welcome readers to submit letters regarding articles and content in Detroit Metro Times. Letters should be a minimum of 150 words, refer to content that has appeared on Detroit Metro Times, and must include the writer's full name, address, and phone number for verification purposes. No attachments will be considered. Writers of letters selected for publication will be notified via email. Letters may be edited and shortened for space.

Email us at letters@metrotimes.com.

Detroit Metro Times works for you, and your support is essential.

Our small but mighty local team works tirelessly to bring you high-quality, uncensored news and cultural coverage of Detroit and beyond.

Unlike many newspapers, ours is free – and we'd like to keep it that way, because we believe, now more than ever, everyone deserves access to accurate, independent coverage of their community.

Whether it's a one-time acknowledgement of this article or an ongoing pledge, your support helps keep Detroit's true free press free.

Read the Digital Print Issue

October 21, 2020

View more issues

Newsletters

Never miss a beat

Sign Up Now

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.

Best Things to Do In Detroit