Judge William Lee bought souvenirs from a Tokyo vending machine—not the vending machines you've read about.
David: I can't dine alone tonight. I'll drink too much. I'll get terribly
sad. I'll cry and I'll think of all the terrible reasons I have for committing
The great cities of the world are the settings for countless stories but filtered through the imagination of a foreigner, even those places we've seen many times (if only in movies) can take on new identities. Spanish filmmaker Isabel Coixet (Elegy) sets her story of loss and love in a Tokyo that feels like a neon-lit dreamscape of the subconscious rather than a bustling metropolis. Map of the Sounds of Tokyo may be too languidly paced and nakedly romantic for some viewers, but I found it completely mesmerizing.
Facts of the Case
A Japanese woman has committed suicide in her Tokyo apartment. Her father, a businessman in a big corporation, is paralyzed by grief so his assistant hires an assassin to kill her Spanish boyfriend. David (Sergi Lopez, Pan's Labyrinth) is a wine merchant living in Japan for two years. He has made an effort to fit in but his Japanese is terrible. There is instant attraction between him and Ryu (Rinko Kikuchi, Babel), a woman who works at the fish market and comes into his store one night. He recommends to her a wine with a more sensual flavor. David takes Ryu to a love hotel, a favorite place he used to frequent with his girlfriend, unaware that she is the part-time, hired killer who has accepted the contract on him. When Ryu falls in love with her target, however, she has to figure out a way to get out of the job.
Map of the Sounds of Tokyo reminds me of two other celebrated romances in iconic cities, Lost in Translation and Last Tango in Paris. What these movies have in common is the situation of lonely souls (hurting or wanting) wandering among a dense populace and finding one other person who can offer solace. That respite from loneliness may be emotional, intellectual or physical. The couple in this story is David, an outsider grieving his girlfriend, and Ryu, a native who would rather be invisible. They share the sort of lusty, primal connection that can't quite be explained but is made totally believable by the way they look at each other, hold each other and whisper words of such urgency.
The dialogue in the movie is sparse, which is to say, the characters don't say any more than is needed. The lovers speak to one another in unpolished English, what with his bad Japanese and her non-existent Spanish. Communicating through their common language, what they say is often very direct and to the point. In An Affair of Love, Sergi Lopez played a man who answered a personal ad from a woman seeking a partner for an unmentioned sexual act—the caveat being that he was forbidden from falling in love. Here, his David is darker but also more honest. He knows he isn't ready for another relationship, he tells Ryu he can offer her nothing, yet he needs her physical comfort. Rinko Kikuchi is alluring and captivating as the girl leading a double life. She can be cold and mysterious in her killer guise but once her guard is down the sensual chemistry between her and Lopez really ignites their scenes of intimacy.
Map of the Sounds of Tokyo requires the viewer's attention and patience. About 24 minutes of the film had passed before I understood who all of the characters were and their relationships with each other. I haven't even mentioned the unnamed narrator, a sound engineer making field recordings of the city, who is obsessed with Ryu. That said, I was enthralled by the movie right from the start and I just drank in the details as the story revealed itself. The visuals are almost hypnotic as Tokyo looks mostly like a neon-colored dreamscape. Fish markets and noodle stands appear exotic while the fantasy tackiness of the love hotel is practically surreal. The sound design suggests minimalism over realism. The streets are quiet, bringing the viewer up close and personal for the conversations between David and Ryu. Sultry, international jazz tunes add a pleasant simmer on the soundtrack.
The movie benefits from a beautiful DVD transfer. The neon colors are vibrant, blacks are deep and skin tones look natural. The image retains lots of fine detail and sharpness is good. The 5.1 surround audio mix is fine but only sparingly are all the channels engaged. The dialogue is delivered mostly in English with some Japanese. The vocals are strong on the soundtrack but the characters' rough English makes it hard to hear their lines precisely. Fortunately the disc includes three English subtitle options—non-English dialogue only, all dialogue, or all dialogue with SDH—and Spanish.
A short making-of featurette (5:00) is included that incorporates sound bites from the director and the main cast members. The international teaser trailer presents the film as an atmospheric love story while the North American trailer attempts to sell the film as a thriller (it's not).
The Rebuttal Witnesses
This movie is not a thriller and audiences expecting to see Ryu's assassin persona in a lot of action scenes will be sorely disappointed. Ryu isn't entirely convincing as a hit woman as that aspect of the movie is the least developed. In a few short flashes we see the results of her work but we mostly have to accept as a given that she's a professional killer, or at least a part-time one.
Here's Tokyo looking still a little stranger than it usually does. It's a slightly unreal setting for an unlikely love affair. I was hooked from the beginning and simply loved every quiet, sensual moment of it.
The movie is not guilty, and the disc is set free to break hearts.
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