I think it might have been Sofia Coppola – was it in that awkward interview that was part of the DVD? — where she reveals that Lost in Translation didn’t have to be set in Tokyo, and could have been anywhere. (Or was that Danny Boyle talking about Mumbai and Slumdog Millionaire?) There’s an odd sense in which Tokyo!, the surreal cinematic triptych featuring films by Michel Gondry, Leos Carax, and Bong Joon-ho, takes the city, its streets, and its cramped apartments for inspiration, but seemingly little else.
Part of what makes Tokyo! so potentially appealing to critics (and to myself, at least) was the backgrounds of its directors, none of whom were from Japan (or Tokyo, for that matter): one (Carax) from France, one (Bong) from South Korea, and one (Gondry) just possibly from outer space. The idea, I think, was that their particular national sensibilities – or, at least on a more generic level, their being not-Japanese – would inform and create different perspectives on Tokyo. But such an appeal, i.e., that difference, seems premised on a kind of national essence – whether Japanese or French or Korean – that doesn’t quite sit well with me. Still, here we have three very different directors, with different cinematic sensibilities (though I confess I haven’t seen anything else by Carax), but the result is something of a misfire all in all.
I’ve never been to Japan or Mumbai, but there’s something about those two films mentioned above in the first paragraph that’s very clearly anchored in location, even if storywise the plots can be transplanted. It seems, at first glance, that there’s nothing specifically Japanese about Tokyo!… and yet I find myself slipping into that same “fallacy” about Japaneseness. (How exactly would I envision something “typically” Japanese? Would I have been satisfied if Gondry animated some giant marauding Hello Kitty, creating havoc across a country landscape?)
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Nancy Abelmann and John Lie, in their book Blue Dreams: Korean Americans and the Los Angeles Riots, write that South Korea’s relationship with the United States, much like that of the U.S. and the Philippines, vacillates on the love-hate continuum. “Through military and civilian contacts,” they write, “the United States became at once an object of material longing and materialistic scorn, a heroic savior and a reactionary intruder. Material desire and moral approbation, longing and disdain, have been twin responses to many of the trappings of American culture….”
One wonders what they would have thought of Bong Joon-Ho’s The Host (Gwoemul), one of the finest movies I saw last year. (Come to think of it, it shouldn’t be too difficult to ask.) Monster movies are said to be symbolic of anxieties burbling up from the depths of a murky id, writ large: postwar fears of a rampant industrialism (Gojira), nuclear annihilation (also Gojira), the savage Other (King Kong), Communism (Invasion of the Body Snatchers), untrammeled adolescent sexuality (The Exorcist), or the simple money-driven compulsion to destroy New York City again (Cloverfield). The Host needs no metaphor to hide this fear of the “reactionary intruder”: the monster here is a paranoid, militarized American chauvinism gone awry, the teratological result of the deliberate dumping of formaldehyde bottles into the Han river. (Something also happens to the protagonist three-quarters of the way through the movie, which I can’t reveal, but how much of him (and what is done to him) represents the Korean body politic is not clear.)
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1. No time to write a real write-up, but Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino’s Grindhouse is up there with Bong Joon-ho’s The Host (and Philip Gröning’s Into Great Silence) as one of my favorites this year so far.
(And in case anyone wanted to know: QT’s was better than RR’s. In fact, I’ll go out on a limb here and say that Eli Roth’s “preview” for Thanksgiving was better than Planet Terror. And indeed I’ll go out on another limb and say that Death Proof is probably Tarantino’s best work since Pulp Fiction. It’s a structural marvel, plus Tarantino lets his characters simply luxuriate in the pleasures of the rhythm of simple conversation. Words, speed and metal — yeah.)
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