Despite filmgoers’ general lack of ticket-buying interest, the omnibus film — thematically contiguous shorts or semi-shorts by various filmmakers, packaged together as a feature — is enjoying an unlikely resurgence akin to its Euro heyday in the ’60s. What’s rousing about the phenom, then and especially now, is that its thriving fecundity is largely fed by the creative yens of directors and producers, not by the entertainment demands of a mass audience. To a certain degree, you get the sense that no one involved in, say, “Paris, Je T’Aime” (2006) (Van Sant, Assayas, Coen, Cuaron, etc.), or “To Each His Own Cinema” (2007) (Angelopoulos, Kiarostami, Kitano, Egoyan, Campion, Loach, Dardennes, de Oliveira, Wong, Lynch, etc.), or “New York, I Love You” (2009) (Akin, Ratner, Iwai, Nair, etc.), cared much if filmgoers queue up or not, so long as they get a chance to explore the short form and then assemble a larger fugue out of the disparate powerhouse voices assembled. As it is, the collections are almost always interesting, if not often satisfying, but the Japanese-produced, digitally-shot “Tokyo!” (2009) is a thorny, dyspeptic joy, less an outright “city symphony” love letter like several of the other recent genre shots than an idiosyncratic prism-view of one of the world’s most pop culture-disoriented urban cultures.
Not that Tokyo itself is the material protagonist; the three sections, by foreigners Michel Gondry, Leos Carax and Bong Joon-ho, are obsessive meta-tales characteristic of their auteurs, and the city is plumbed mostly for its cramped sense of the surreal. Gondry’s “Interior Design” begins prosaically enough, as a young woman and her filmmaker boyfriend crash on a friend’s apartment floor, bicker and lose their car to impoundment as the debut of his new interactive film (at a porn theater) approaches. But then Gondry’s distinctive sense emerges: feeling like little more than a byproduct and facilitator of her boyfriend’s ambition, the girl begins to slowly transform into a chair, a process that’s indisputably physical just as it is subjective, in the typical Gondry way — it depends on how you look at it, and her.
Bong’s “Shaking Tokyo” is a lovely, resonant and oddly critic-dumped ode to dense urban life and its contingent loneliness — a catastrophically insulated shut-in, whose apartment is a labyrinth of meticulously stacked books, household goods and used cardboard, has his decade-long routine (at one point, he closes his eyes, opens them, and suddenly another year has passed) disrupted by earthquakes and a pizza delivery girl with tattoo buttons (to push in case of “sadness,” “hysteria,” “headache” and so on). The anal-retentive apocalypse that follows is delicate and inspiring, and Bong’s attention to details (a goosebump-risen hair, a plume of dust from a never-used shoe) is dazzling.
But Carax’s lunatic entry, “Merde,” is an unfettered cataract of reckless, psychosocial id, coming at us in the form of a monster movie (Godzilla’s theme and roar figure in the soundtrack), with its society-threatening creature, rising out of the sewer, played by Carax vet-acrobat-homunculus Denis Lavant. A smelly, unwashed, outrageously dressed (green velvet suit and cartoonishly twisted orange beard), palsy-gnarled homicidal Frenchman, limping through the streets hurling war-surplus hand grenades and terrorizing the often-terrorized Japanese, in a film made in Japan by an eccentric Frenchman, is one thing — but Carax pushes all of the buttons, bringing the titular goon to trial (where he only speaks gibberish with a renegade defense lawyer who has the same beard and dead eye, the two looking like mutant variations of Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible), where the translations (and multiple screens) mix and match between French, Japanese and nonsense, the Japanese authorities talk about “tougher immigration regulations” against “white foreigners with red beards,” and Merde himself becomes a pop star, complete with followers, figurine collectibles and a TV-news logo. That Carax has Lavant continually looking up into the light in a Christ-like pose may be the final affront, for the French at least if not the Japanese, whose famed isolationist homogeneity/xenophobia otherwise takes it in the throat.