Map of the Sounds of Tokyo

Pretty to look at but largely vacuous, Spanish helmer Isabel Coixet's romantic drama film plays like a perfume ad without a product.

With:
With: Rinko Kikuchi, Sergi Lopez, Min Tanaka, Manabu Oshio, Takeo Nakahara, Hideo Sakaki. (English, Japanese, Spanish dialogue)

Pretty to look at but largely vacuous, Spanish helmer Isabel Coixet’s romantic drama “Map of the Sounds of Tokyo” plays like a perfume ad without a product. The Tokyo-set yarn about a Japanese hit woman who falls for her Spanish mark reps a vague cross between “Nikita” and “Last Tango in Paris,” but without the former’s kinetic action or the latter’s resonance. Admittedly, “Tokyo’s” softcore sex scenes smoke, which might just help the pic map out niche distribution in some territories, but critical support will be thin, judging by the boos that greeted the Cannes press showing.

“Map of the Sounds of Tokyo” delivers a major disappointment after Coixet’s underrated Philip Roth adaptation “Elegy,” which seemed to herald the arrival of a new, tougher-minded vigor in her direction. Instead, the latest pic, this time written entirely by the helmer herself, sees Coixet returning to the excessively precious, melancholy tone that marred her earlier pic “The Secret Life of Words.”

Critical goodwill extended toward the helmer for her patchy if effective breakout arthouse drama “My Life Without Me” won’t be so forthcoming this time round.

The story here is told via ponderous, would-be poetic narration in Japanese by an unnamed sound recordist (Min Tanaka), who explains how he has a chaste relationship with a mysterious woman named Ryu (stunning Rinko Kikuchi from “Babel”). Ryu does menial but cinematically picturesque work in Tokyo’s fish market, so, she explains later, she doesn’t have to think.

The fact that she has a big, stylishly furnished if minimalist apartment that a fish-market worker’s salary could never afford, always wears slinky black clothes, and in her free time cleans graves and looks sad all adds up to the revelation that she’s a hit woman. Ryu’s latest assignment is to kill Spanish wine-shop owner David (Sergi Lopez, “Pan’s Labyrinth”) on the behalf of a businessman (Takeo Nakahara) whose daughter supposedly committed suicide over him.

Instead of just killing David in a crowded street and running off like a proper assassin would, Ryu packs her piece in a dainty handbag (clothes and accessory porn will rep one selling point for femme auds), goes to meet him in his store and is instantly charmed by fact that he recognizes her as a woman who knows her wine. Before you can say “Tampopo,” slurps of ramen lead to a different kind of slurping in a no-tell-motel room fashioned to look like a Paris subway car. Soon after, Ryu offers to pay the client back his money with interest so she doesn’t have to do the deed.

It’s all really rather silly, but one thing that can be said in Coixet’s defense is that she knows how to tap into the erotic fantasies of some female viewers. Although Lopez’s alarmingly hirsute chest might put off some, his David is almost the perfect arthouse stud monkey: He has a nice bourgeois job that requires refinement and connoisseurship, but is muy macho and assertive in the bedroom, and loves giving oral sex to boot.

If only the film showed the character enjoying lengthy discussions of feelings and demonstrating skill at fixing household appliances, he could be to specialty-film-loving femme viewers today what Beatrice Dalle in “Betty Blue” was to arty college boys in the 1980s.

Although Lopez and Kikuchi have great chemistry and both have proved their acting chops elsewhere, something’s gone badly awry here so that every time they open their mouths — to talk, instead of snog — they sound stilted and flat. It doesn’t help that neither is speaking their first language, but largely it’s the pretentiousness of the script that fails them.

The movie looks nice, courtesy of Jean Claude Larrieu’s lensing (Coixet herself once again takes a credit as camera operator, and this is one job she’s indisputably good at). But as with fellow Cannes 2009 competitor Gaspar Noe’s “Enter the Void” also proves, use of Tokyo’s photogenic, color-saturated locations will get a film only so far if it doesn’t have something interesting to say. Sound design credited to Fabiola Ordoyo is good enough, but not quite as intricate or nuanced as one would expect given the prominence of sound in both title and screenplay.

The rest of the tech credits are pro.

Map of the Sounds of Tokyo

Spain

Production: A Mediapro, Versatil Cinema production. (International sales: Imagina, Madrid.) Produced by Jaume Roures. Executive producer, Javier Mendez. Directed, written by Isabel Coixet.

Crew: Camera (color), Jean Claude Larrieu; editor, Irene Blecua; production designer, Ryo Sugimoto; costume designer, Tony Crosby; sound (Dolby Digital), Aitor Berenguer; sound designer, Fabiola Ordoyo; sound re-recording mixer, Marc Orts. Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (competing), May 22, 2009. Running time: 102 MIN.

With: With: Rinko Kikuchi, Sergi Lopez, Min Tanaka, Manabu Oshio, Takeo Nakahara, Hideo Sakaki. (English, Japanese, Spanish dialogue)

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