Map of the Sounds of Tokyo

By Robert Jordan


Cannes Film Fest 2009 (In Competition)–Isabel Coixet is a prominent face of the new style of global filmmaking: she’s a Spanish director who works mostly in English with a mix of European, American and Asian actors and makes sad, romantic tone poems that pop in and around every corner of the world.


Just a year after her most fully satisfying work, “Elegy,” from the Philip Roth novella with Penelope Cruz, the Spanish director goes off-stride with “Map of the Sounds of Tokyo.” Like most of her previous work, the new movie has some visual snap and interesting ideas but contains little that is original or fully developed.


The new film basically (and shamelessly) yokes together strands of Wong Kar-wai’s “Chungking Express,” Bernardo Bertolucci’s “Last Tango in Paris” and Nagisa Oshima’s “In the Realm of the Senses.” But there’s very little of the director’s own sensibility to find a contemporary context for those references. The situations move awkwardly, painfully from the strange and eerie to the outrageous and inexplicable.


Using the moon landscapes of Tokyo’s city streets and angular architecture, Coixet tells a story of two souls lost in space. David (Sergi Lopez) is a Spanish expatriate who operates a local wine store. Ryu (Rinko Kikuchi, of “Babel” and “The Brothers Bloom”) is a solitary dreamer and introvert who works in the fish market.


But this being an existential mystery with genre overtones, Ryu is also (get this) a contract killer.


Coixet’s subject appears to be the emotional, sexual and physical transactions of the body, the point driven home by the arresting opening images of a group of mostly American businessmen in Tokyo eating sumptuously prepared food off the bodies of beautiful naked women. The Japanese businessman Nagara (Takeo Nakahara), a traditionalist with a code of honor, is rightfully alarmed by the display, but his top lieutenant Ishida (Hideo Shakaki) insists it is just a part of doing business.


The dinner ends horribly upon the devastating news that the business executive’s daughter Midori, beautiful and seemingly accomplished, has taken her own life. The daughter, it turns out, is David’s girlfriend. Nagara blames David for his daughter’s death. Ishido, who’s privately carried an unrequited crush on the Midori, hires Ryu to eliminate the Spaniard.


The story moves through parallel tracks, both navigating the surreal sexual odyssey that unfolds between David and Ryu and documenting Nagara’s slow, painful dissolution caused by the unspeakable grief and mourning toward his daughter. Furthermore, the movie is narrated by Ryu’s only other acquaintance (Min Tanaka), an older confidante.


A suicide and elaborately played out sexual roles and fantasy wish fulfillment was the central narrative device of the Bertolucci film. No less than Lars von Trier’s “Antichrist,” “Map of the Sounds of Tokyo” uses grief and loss as an opening for sexual experimentation. The beautiful Ryu quickly insinuates herself into David’s orbit, but finds herself uncontrollably drawn to the poise, dignity and quiet strength of the exile.


The narrative set up is potentially intriguing, but Coixet is unable to draw out the particulars and find believable, empathetic characters to shape and color her story of loss, surrender and resurrection. Strangely, her biggest negative is her treatment of the women characters. Her inability to find a psychological compelling reason for Midori’s emotional state or Ryu’s loneliness and depression cripples the material.


The characters talk around and through one another, but never quite back and forth. The movie has too much dead space and unmotivated, awkward moments that handicap and undermines the story.


Coixet intertwines violence and sex, a lethal combination, but her failure to find any depth or emotional resonance in the characters leaves them unmoored. It works neither as thriller nor sex story. It’s too bad, because she is much more confident and capable visually than finding a coherent and satisfying way to stage her ideas. Jean Claude Larrieu’s cinematography is both luscious and suggestive; the mobile, swooping camera captures with a dread and anxiety the sense of alienation and rupture in the increasingly large, impersonal Tokyo.


In the three years since “Babel,” Kikuchi has become much more expressive and natural with English dialogue and her desperation and longing are palpable. But her role is so poorly conceived and developed; she stands outside, an inchoate personality. The polyglot Lopez is impressive again, projecting just the right balance of confidence and wary, I’ve seen it all.


Even the sex between the beautiful Kikuchi and Lopez feels joyless and never anarchic, fun or wild. Like most of “Map of the Sounds of Tokyo,” it’s a chore to get through.