Travelers' Tales: Sin Nombre and Tokyo! 

On the road to the USA, clueless in Tokyo.

Sin Nombre arrives in theaters on the heels of another powerful gangster movie, Matteo Garrone's Gomorrah. Both take us down to street level — Gomorrah in Italy, Sin Nombre in southern Mexico — for a dirty, brutal tour of the inner workings of a criminal operation run by young guys in a place where violence is the first and only resort and police are an afterthought.

But there's an immediate discrepancy between the foot soldiers of the Neapolitan "system" and the Mara Salvatrucha depicted in Sin Nombre — cash, and the lack thereof. The rackets in and around Naples are lucrative, and the gangsters there sport fistfuls of hundred-Euro bills. After all, they're at the center of European commerce. In the sleepy backwater of Tapachula, Chiapas, where youths Casper (Edgar Flores) and Smiley (Kristian Ferrer) are just breaking into the MS mob as gofers, nothing's really happening. They're poor, they know it, and it pisses them off.

The Mara Salvatrucha, born in a Salvadoran neighborhood in Los Angeles, is notorious for its aggressive expansion into other parts of the US and Central America, as well as for its members' fondness for outlandish, Maori-style tattoos — a trademark that makes it easy to spot mareros. As drawn by writer-director Cary Fukunaga, the "Confetti" clica of the gang in Tapachula preys heavily on refugees from Guatemala, Honduras, etc., passing through Mexico on their way to the US. One such little band of travelers is a young woman named Sayra (Paulina Gaitan), her father, and her uncle, Hondurans looking for a better life. When they hop a northbound freight train along with dozens of other pobres, they unwittingly put themselves on a deadly collision course with Casper, aka Willy, and the outrageously tattooed Confetti leader, Lil' Mago (Tenoch Huerta Mejía).

Filmmaker Fukunaga, an Oakland native and UC Santa Cruz graduate who has been building his résumé in indie films, wastes no time with laborious explanations for his characters' motives. For Casper/Willy and his aspiring gang-banger buddies as well as for Sayra and her relatives, the situation is desperate and rapidly getting worse. Smiley, the twelve-year-old peewee anxious to earn the right to carry a gun, takes a vicious beating as part of his initiation. Willy has been through all that and is already souring on the MS experience when Lil' Mago casually vamps on Willy's girlfriend, Marta Marlen (Diana García). That tests it even further.

Drugs, armed holdups, and protection rackets are the clica's chief moneymakers, but really, the only hope for any of the marginalized characters in Fukunaga's brilliantly realized drama is El Norte, where the money is. Everyone either seems to be heading there or else hustling the anxious greenhorns on the road. Actress Gaitan, a veteran of Mexican actioners, does an appealing job as the quick-witted yet essentially innocent Sayra — her destination is a relative in New Jersey. As for part-time actor Flores in the role of Casper/Willy, all we need to know about him is there in his impassive face, old before its time, weary of the conflict and too many bloodlettings. The deceptively sweet-faced kid Smiley, however, is hungry for more.

Fukunaga gets major help from Mexican director of photography Adrian Goldman in lensing the gaudily costumed and tattooed mareros and their contrastingly shabby surroundings. Fukunaga's feature-film directorial debut has a nasty stamp of authenticity to it, a quality that undoubtedly impressed Mexican movie stars Gael García Bernal and Diego Luna — the Y Tu Mamá También boys — enough to add their names to the production as producers. Sin Nombre reportedly wowed audiences at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival, deservedly. It discovers new ways to tell us what we already know — that the world is full of poor people in a bad mood, and they're heading in our direction with great determination.

The tourists in the anthology film Tokyo! are a different matter entirely. Where the protagonists of Sin Nombre are struggling just to survive, the characters dreamed up by filmmakers Michel Gondry, Leos Carax, and Bong Joon-ho suffer from problems far more ethereal. One of them finds a way to turn herself into a common household object; another lurks in the sewers of the title city, emerging only to attack pedestrians; and a third simply hides from the world in his house.

The best of the mismatched trilogy is the whimsical "Shaking Tokyo" by South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho. Bong made The Host (Gwoemul), a perfectly serviceable 2006 monster movie about a gigantic water thingie terrorizing Seoul. No devouring creatures in his segment of Tokyo!, just a modern-day hermit (well played by Japanese everyman Teruyuki Kagawa) who has his meals delivered and collects his trash in neat, orderly stacks while he reads incessantly. The guy's equilibrium gets disturbed one day by a pizza delivery girl — wouldn't you know it — and everything changes.

In director Michel Gondry's cute but slight "Interior Design," a young couple from the provinces moves into a friend's cramped apartment while they search for the elusive twin prize of jobs plus a decent place to live. Such is their frustration at finding neither that the young woman, Hiroko (Ayako Fujitani), accidentally transubstantiates herself into a wooden chair one night, and is promptly taken home. What a novel way to solve unemployment and the shortage of affordable housing — become a piece of furniture.

The obvious clinker of the group is "Merde," filmmaker Leos Carax's candidly titled triviality about a strange, dirty man in a green suit (veteran fou Denis Lavant) whose hobby is emerging suddenly from Tokyo manholes to upset passersby like a demented leprechaun. Is he a demon or just another crazy foreigner? Carax' scenario plays on the ostensible Japanese fear of odd public behavior and unfamiliar people, but from here it looks like just another Frenchman horsing around in Japan, scaring the locals and making an ass of himself — Lavant or Carax, take your pick.

The Japanese capital deserves better than this. Tokyo!, a hasty pudding from 2008, appears to answer the call for more lightweight city-tribute anthologies on the order of Paris, je t'aime, but all three screenplays were probably composed on the plane to Japan. With any luck, this trend will die out. Otherwise, we'll no doubt be subjected to Moscow!, Madrid!, or Berkeley!


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