03/19/2009 07:27 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Tense Times in Tokyo! Town

If last year's spate of big political movies (from Milk to Wall E via Che and Changeling) reverberated with protest and populism, the three shorts by Michel Gondry, Leos Carax and Bong Joon-ho that comprise the omnibus film Tokyo! might give a taste of this year's political cinema as, in the wake of the Obama election and economic collapse, we struggle to renegotiate our social contract. Though the three films are about individuals, they contextualize one another, and though not every piece will be to every taste, together they make a weird picture of personal politics right now.

The films aren't as touristy as the jaunty intro sequence, international directors, or the other recent city-omnibus Paris J'Taime might suggest. Besides shooting in Tokyo and their surrealist tendencies, the most obvious similarity between the films in Tokyo! is that they might be set in any modern city. (Notice that Gondry's film was based on co-writer Gabrielle Bell's comic "Cecil and Jordan in New York", and that Carax's end credits promise its villain will return in a New York-based sequel.) Tokyo appears less as the postcard of a city and more as an idea: collectivism. All three films tell the stories of private, misunderstood people as they test their limits in this big, modern world.

The unease many critics have with Tokyo! actually seems to reflect the characters, whose experiences in the city of Tokyo are likewise uncomfortable. Without Leos Carax's all-caps MERDE between them, the sad, introversive films by Michel Gondry and Bong Joon-ho might make the exclamation point at the end of the title seem ironic. In fact, an antisocial omnibus film is kind of ironic simply because of the way these things are financed. Carax has admitted never seeing the other films before Cannes, so who knows whether the producers expected to make such a unfun series, or whether these are just movies for our times.

Michel Gondry's Interior Design tells the story of a young couple who move to the city and rapidly find themselves alienated from one another by the job and housing markets. Gondry gets in a bit of self-deprecating business with the aspiring-director boyfriend's art film, and it's all very tender until the girlfriend, Hiroko (Ayako Fujitani), feels she's become a burden on him. Here, nearly two-thirds of the way through, the trademark Gondry visual effects begin, representing her addled psyche. But watching this leper girl trek through Tokyo as her clothes and body parts fall off is unsettling and almost cruel. The sudden surrealism and public nudity transform a weepy story of low self-esteem into a harsh, sort of ominous film. I won't spoil its jocular ending, but she becomes objectified, literally.

Leos Carax's MERDE is the most exuberant and the most menacing of the three films. A milky-eyed, long-nailed Leprechaun monster (Denis Lavant) erupts from the sewer with a Groucho Marx gait; he steals a cigarette, eats some money and flowers, and licks an armpit. Immediately the TV news kicks in and the city is in instant freakout about the "terrorist attack"--the obvious joke is Godzilla, but the pranks and long digital-video tracking shot are equally reminiscent of Jackass The Movie (the first one, where they go to Japan). The exploits get much bloodier in his next adventure, and this creature we'd adored for being funnier in one shot than Gondry's whole movie is suddenly a mass-murderer. Carax then spends an absurd amount of time on the media and courts' attempt to decode his hateful existence, involving two separate translators (since his gobbledigook language--replete with face-slapping--is only spoken by a milky-eyed French lawyer who must be then translated into Japanese), and further refracted through a split-screen technique that, like the 24-hour news cycle, is all the more confusing and never lets its audience settle. Japanese society is confounded and polarized too; the trial creates Merde imitators and protestors. As a satire of the War on Terror, it's especially savory that the acts of terror and interrogation (in their crazy language and untranslated) are captivating physical comedy, and that the institutional attempts at resolution are long and deliberately difficult to watch.

Bong Joon-ho delivers a softer side than audiences of his hit The Host, might expect. Shaking Tokyo is a portrait of an urban hermit (in Japanese, 'hikikumori') who's coaxed out of hiding by an attractive young girl, only to learn that most of Tokyo has become similarly reclusive. The film is very visual; it contrasts pictures of order vs chaos, the private vs public, robots vs humans... yes, the girl. Maybe. A detailed portrait of the man, we learn as little as he knows about the outside world, until the aggregate mysteries--and lust--compel Teruyuki Kagawa on a quest into the quaking outdoors. It's our first opportunity in any of the three films to see famous Tokyo locations. Ironically, they're abandoned.

The result is an omnibus that's less about Tokyo than the economy, terror, and isolationism. Tokyo! is interesting taken as a whole, but the easiest reason to recommend it is MERDE. Lavant and Carax don't flip over this city the way they did Paris in their last collaboration (1991's The Lovers on the Bridge), but chalk that up to the times. They've got an awesome energy, probably all the greater for having not worked together in so long, and if Gondry and Bong are overshadowed here, there's no shame in that.