Monday, January 10, 2011

MAP OF THE SOUNDS OF TOKYO (Mapa de los sonidos de Tokio, 2009)

Isabel Coixet's erotic thriller never manages to top the outrageousness of its opening scene. It's a business banquet thrown by a Japanese firm for visiting American businessmen to help seal a deal. The men eat sushi -- warm sushi, we're told -- off the bodies of naked women. Wikipedia tells me that the scene created controversy in Japan because audiences there thought that Coixet was perpetuating stereotypes of national decadence. In the film I saw, however, on an IFC DVD, the corporate executive complains about having to go through such a demeaning event because the Americans expect it from them. That is, the scene is a comment on American stereotypes of Japan and the Japanese willingness to cater to them. Was that line added after the premiere or did the critics miss it?

The social comment could easily get lost in what follows, as the executive, Nagara, receives whispered news and promptly transforms the scene into a White Heat homage, slapping the sushi off the poor frightened women's bodies as he launches into a tantrum of grief. His daughter Midori has killed herself. She's left a suicide note written in blood on her bathroom mirror: "Why didn't you love me as I loved you?"

Understandably, Nagara blames his daughter's death on her boyfriend David (Sergi Lopez), a Spanish wine dealer. He wants David's blood and orders his chief flunky to make arrangements. How exactly the arrangements are made is unclear, but we're shortly introduced to Ryu (Rinko Kikuchi), a seafood butcher by trade with an odd habit of visiting cemeteries and compulsively cleaning certain graves. We see her through the eyes of our narrator, a sound-recording technician who admires the way Ryu slurps ramen noodles. Objectively, we infer that the graves belong to people whom Ryu, who moonlights as an assassin, has killed. David is her next target.

Ryu is lonely, David is grieving and Nagara is impatient. Guess what happens?

Ryu: I didn't know there were sensual wines.
David: Why not? Everything can be sensual.

Coixet tries to keep it interesting by showing how the lovers struggle with competing alienations, how their love may be less a matter of connecting with each other than a matter of each working out purely personal issues. This is especially true of David, who struggles admirably to fit into Japanese society by learning the language. As it turns out, most of the Japanese he encounters, from his employees to Ryu, are more comfortable speaking with him in English. The fact that the lovers address each other in a third language makes the alienation theme more obvious; this is a Spanish film in which the Spanish language goes almost entirely unspoken. There's a further point to be made about the ultimate inability to comprehend fully another person's issues; that point is made the most as we learn more (though never much) about Midori. It's driven home hardest in a speech by David's employee -- delivered in the most fluent English in the picture -- in which he explains that the girl was unworthy of either Nagara or David's grief. The "you" in her suicide note could have been either of them, or both, but we're assured through this convenient intervention that neither man is really to blame for her death. It seems that people's narcissism inevitably hurts those close to them; the more Ryu realizes that David is on some level using her to work out his grief issues, the more she suffers, and the more likely she may be to take back her decision to renounce the contract on David, if the employers don't act first....

But while Coixet has something interesting to say about the trouble with love, her film ends up being little more than eye candy, all too easily indulging in exotic eccentricity for its own sake. It's handsomely shot, but in a generic way, with the predictable godlike views of Tokyo at night. It burdens itself with pointless quirkiness, showing us not once but twice a person dressed as a shrubbery in a subway station and a group of young people who meet periodically to commemorate different emotions on orders from a meagphone-wielding master. First it's Kiss Day, and later it's Anger Day, and both times Ryu wanders through the absurd scene to illustrate her loneliness and alienation. The point was made the first time. Even the eroticism and the display of two would-be international stars in the nude must compete for your eye with the gimmick of a hotel room in the shape of a Paris Metro car, complete with standing-room accessories. Coixet is too self-conscious about creating pretty pictures or odd images. That and a very predictable tragic finish make Mapa de los sonidos an essentially superficial film. Whether you like it or not will depend on how you like the imagery, but this is a case where style may have undermined the substance of a potentially better movie.

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