Sunday, February 21, 2010

Bong at BAM: Shaking Tokyo

There must be something about the city of Tokyo. Some of the coolest people I know are Japanese musicians living in New York. Yet, Tokyo is often represented in pop culture as a lonely city. Indeed, it is portrayed by Bong Joon-ho and two other stylistically distinctive international directors as a city of profound alienation in the fantastical anthology film, Tokyo! (trailer here). Bong’s contribution, Shaking Tokyo, truly personifies alienation, taking the audience into the closed world of the Hikikomori, urban recluses who have almost no human contact whatsoever. Screening separately from the rest of the Tokyo! film, Shaking is part of a slate of shorts programmed for Monsters and Murders, BAM’s upcoming Bong retrospective.

The so-called hikikomori are youngish, acutely withdrawn shut-ins thought to be a particularly Japanese phenomenon by some social scientists. Such is the protagonist of Bong’s Shaking. He must have food delivered, but he steadfastly avoids eye contact with the delivery people. However, when the pizza delivery girl (played by Yu Aoi) mysteriously collapses during an earthquake, he cannot help but take notice of her. Following their surreal encounter, he is a basket-case for two days. Eventually he tries to see her again, but is alarmed to discover his example might have inspired her to adopt the hikikomori lifestyle as well.

Teruyuki Kagawa, familiar to American audiences from the 20th Century Boys series, is quite compelling as unnamed hikikomori, carrying the nearly one-person film, despite the emotionally withdrawn nature of his character. Bong’s oblique camera angles and claustrophobic environment also nicely convey the neurotic perspective of his protagonist. Though there are no monsters or murders in Shaking, the extent of the hikikomori’s anti-social compulsions and their seductiveness to those potentially sharing the inclination is actually quite frightening. Still, unlike his typical features, Bong wraps it all up on a possibly hopeful note (or perhaps not), yet without sacrificing the integrity of his story.

Whether it is because they suffer from deep-seated emotional issues or are running for their lives from wild-eyed Frenchmen, human connections are maddeningly difficult to forge throughout Tokyo! in general and Shaking in particular. It is probably a strong second best installment in a well above average anthology film. It screens with Influenza and Sink and Rise this next coming Monday (3/1) as the Bong retrospective continues at BAM.