Thursday, September 22, 2011

MOVIE REVIEW: TETSUO THE BULLET MAN (2009)

Tetsuo the Bullet Man

Starring
Eric Bossick as Anthony
Akiko Mono as Yuriko
Yuko Nakamura as Mitsue
Stephen Sarrazin as Ride
Shinya Tsukamoto as The Guy


Directed by Shinya Tsukamoto
Written by Shinya Tsukamoto and Hisakatsu Kuroki
Music by Chu Ishikawa
Cinematography by Satoshi Hayashi, Takayuki Shida, and Shinya Tsukamoto
Edited by Yuji Ambe and Shinya Tsukamoto
Production Design by Shinya Tsukamoto
Costume Design by Mari Sakurai
Produced by Shinichi Kawahara, Masayuki Tanishima, and Shinya Tsukamoto


A Kaijyu Theatre Production



"You don't want me inside you. You don't know what I'll do."


Anthony (Eric Bossick) has nightmares about a boy with a vibrating face of molten slag. His wife Yuriko (Akiko Mono) has the same nightmares. She's willing to talk about it, but Anthony keeps it inside. Anthony keeps a lot inside.

Like his resentment at how his father, Ride (Stephen Sarrazin) a retired bio-tech researcher, insists on conducting monthly blood tests on Anthony and Tom, Anthony's son. Ride claims he wants to make sure that Anthony and Tom aren't developing leukemia or other diseases. Anthony has tried to convince Ride that they can get those kinds of tests with their regular health care provider, but Ride insists. Ride's wife, Mitsue (Yuko Nakamura), died from some sort of inherited illness. Ride seems to believe that only he can keep his son and grandson healthy from the ravages of inherited disease.

Anthony is walking back from his father's place to his apartment with his son while talking on the phone with Yuriko when an economy car comes zooming down a tunnel. Anthony tells Tom to get out of the road, to stand against the wall. The car comes to a halt a few feet from Anthony. The driver is in shadow. There's something menacing about this vehicle. A father's worst fears are realized when the car backs up at high speed and runs Tom down. Anthony runs after the car, helpless to stop this new nightmare unfolding in waking life, and sees something both horrific and strange: a little arm is reaching out from underneath the front end of the car, fingers grasping the grill of the murderous economy car. The arm is seemingly mutilated, but maybe it's just transformed . . . into the same awful consistency of the molten slag face of the child Anthony and Yuriko both saw in their nightmares. A new vision of horror: steaming blood pours from beneath the car. But the blood looks more like liquid metal . . .

Anthony feels something exploding inside himself. He flips out, his body twitching and vibrating, going into a kind of dance. The crashing music seems to signal the loosing of some strange, awful power, and a new Tetsuo is born!

Much as in Tetsuo II: Body Hammer, the man of metal in Tetsuo the Bullet Man is also born of rage at the murderous loss of his son. This homicidal act also echos the act of vehicular assault which created the Metal Fetishist in the original Tetsuo the Iron Man. Does filmmaker Shinya Tsukamoto have a fear of being run over by a car? Maybe so. I recall reading somewhere that Tsukamoto rides a bicycle, and so maybe he feels some anxiety at being run down by some monstrous machine (bicycles also figure prominently in Tsukamoto's films Bullet Ballet and Nightmare Detective). There's also the tragedy of a parent losing a child. This seems to be a concern which has grown out of Tsukamoto's real world development from a single  auteur filmmaker to an auteur filmmaker with a wife and children who keeps one foot in the world of advertising and for-hire filmmaking. Tsukamoto's movies always seem to reflect his personal obsessions and concerns even when they are works of pure fantasy. Indeed, Tsukamoto's fantasies are never just that. Fantastic powers and mutations come at the potential loss of one's sanity, bodily integrity, and the peril of mass destruction.

This peril of mass destruction is something Tsukamoto seems to have an ambivalent relationship with in the Tetsuo movies. Tetsuo the Iron Man seemed to embrace the annihilation of the old world, as embodied by the city of Tokyo, as something to be celebrated. A lone metal fetishist pursues a milquetoast salaryman with the intention of inspiring uncontrolled mutation and ultimate creative destruction. It also had a sexual element: the unleashing of destructive powers was seemingly some sort of atomic orgasm combined with infectious psychic mutations of the libido. Tetsuo II: Body Hammer involved a whole cult of metal fetishists organized with the purpose of tormenting a salaryman into remembering his secret past. Tetsuo II also addressed the destruction of Tokyo as a necessity, perhaps to make the world safe for parents and offspring. It was to be an end to all wars of mutation, as it were, since it was the city of Tokyo itself, born out of cutthroat capitalism and high technology, that required men of flesh to become men of metal to keep up the pace of production.

In all of these Tetsuo movies, the mutations are triggered by a figure known as The Guy, or Yatsu. (I'm guessing Yatsu must mean 'guy' or 'person.') The Guy, or "That Guy!" as Anthony refers to him at one point, is always played by Shinya Tsukamoto, perhaps as an on-camera manifestation of his behind the lens role as director and mastermind of the on screen carnage. Tsukamoto seems to be saying that each of these movies is a kind of experiment where the author/director is tormenting some poor protagonist to provoke a radical evolutionary response, to become a monster, and always for sinister purposes. The Guy's motives are tied to his resentment of the modern edifice of Tokyo, and perhaps reflect Tsukamoto's dark side as an artist.

Tsukamoto in real life is both an artist with a taste for the dark side and a hardworking family man. These movies seem to be explorations of these sometimes conflicting roles. The provocative artist side of him desires to transform reality, to defeat crass consumerism, and blow minds to bits. The family man side of him has bills to pay, responsibilities to shoulder, and people to love and protect. It's almost like two different personae reside within the same man. One has a serious resentment towards the structures and strictures of 21st century capitalist society, and the other depends on them. Tsukamoto uses these movies to play out these conflicts, and to show the price paid no matter where we fall on the destruction/dependence spectrum.

The Bullet Man is also a creature responding to the pain and cruelty of the world, the world as played by Tokyo. In this movie, the Bullet Man is besieged by grief, a wife who is angry that he let their son die, and the heavily armed contractors of a sinister corporation. Powerful interests want to make this Bullet Man go away, but this new Tetsuo won't go down without a fight. As Anthony's mutation progresses, he becomes a roaring, slag encrusted war machine, bristling with cannons, and enraged by his inability to control his transformations.

Interestingly, and perhaps inspired by American comic book superheroes, the Bullet Man tries his best not to kill people, only to wound and disable them. This creates some dark comedy when the Bullet Man battles the Blackwater-style contractors. Instead of executing them outright, he just settles for blowing off their arms and legs to calm them down. Our hero, ladies and gentlemen.

The Guy, once again incarnated by Tsukamoto, is the driver of the murderous economy car. He knows what Anthony is hiding inside, and wants to bring it out into the open. The Guy tortures Anthony with menacing phone calls and emails. It's a tribute to Tsuakmoto's skill as a director that he is able to conjure menace from economy cars, cell phones, and emails. Part of it is how he directs the movie to put the audience into Anthony's disturbed mental state, but a large portion of the movie's intensity comes from Chu Ishikawa's epic score and sound design. This is a movie which constantly rumbles with ambient menace, and impacts with furious percussion. I can't adequately describe it, it's just something you have to experience. Crank up the volume on this one.

The Guy, who in this movie is presented as some sort of corporate saboteur, has something special in mind for the Bullet Man, something unexpectedly grand and ambitious. It's not the unbridled sexual anarchy of Tetsuo the Iron Man, nor is it solely the revelation of dark secrets from the past, as in Tetsuo II: Body Hammer. It has partially to do with unveiling the past and something else which I won't reveal. But I would say it's rather a clever twist on the surreal logic of the Tetsuo movies. It makes me wonder what Tsukamoto has in mind for Tetsuo 4, and, yes, I do hope he makes a fourth one.

First time leading man Eric Bossick gets put through his paces on this one. I gather from his IMDB profile that he has done voice overs  and motion capture for video games such as Silent Hill 4, and that he has had  roles on Japanese television dramas. There's also a great picture on his IMDB page of Bossick, Tsukamoto, and Robert De Niro together at the Tribeca Film Festival. Bossick is no replacement for Tomorrwo Taguchi  who so memorably embodied the previous two men of metal, and I don't think he's meant to be. Bossick brings more of a fragile, wounded dimension to the Bullet Man. But he is also quite convincingly crazed and fearsome, and a helluva sport to be buried under the elaborate molting slag make-up and costuming prostheses.

The Bullet Man is also a triumph of make-up and practical effects. To watch it go through it's different transformations is quite impressive. As the Bullet Man molts and mutates, his wife Yuriko has the opportunity to show tenderness towards this monster, evoking some version of Beauty and the Beast. The scene of Yuriko pulling the molted chunks of slab from Anthony's head is unexpectedly moving. And The Bullet Man's final form suggests a wholly new and terrifying frontier for the Tetsuo franchise . . . but you'll just have to see for yourself.

It should be noted that this film is mostly in English, with only a few lines of dialogue in Japanese. This was done, I guess, to try and increase its commercial viability in the United States and other English speaking markets. The effect is uneven. All of the Japanese cast members are clearly speaking their lines based on phonetic memorization, and the effect is rather artificial. Bossick has no problem with the English, and Tsukamoto's scenes with English dialogue are played for perverse humorous effect, and that compensates somewhat for the lack of fluency, but the overall impact is less than perfect. But it does give the movie a strange sound and feel. The dialogue itself is not bad, actually, and shows a good deal of finesse, it's just the delivery is off, and I feel that it puts the obviously talented Japanese cast members at a bit of a disadvantage. But Tsukamoto makes a skilled go of it.

It comes off better than what was attempted in 2007's Sukiyaki Western Django, which was a mash-up of Spaghetti Westerns and samurai movies directed by Takashi Miike. In that movie, all of the dialogue was recorded in phonetically memorized English, and it was all thoroughly ludicrous. The movie featured a hugely talented cast, and some memorably orchestrated carnage, but the dialogue was almost incomprehensible and undercut the whole endeavor. I had to watch it with English subtitles. Tetsuo the Bullet Man deploys it's dialogue much more effectively. Even if you don't catch every last word, the flow of the story, and the emotions of the characters are all pretty easy to follow.

Tetsuo the Bullet Man is a worthy entry in Tsukamoto's surrealistic ongoing saga of rage, mutation, and creative destruction, played out against Tokyo, that high-tech edifice of civilization. Watching it reminded me of a line of dialogue from an earlier Tsukamoto film, Bullet Ballet, where one of the characters referred to Tokyo as a dream. The character, a drug dealing gangster and junkie, seemed to suggest that the mainstream society of civilization and laws was an illusion, and that it was the underground, outlaw existence which was real. Of course, one must consider the source of this bit of druggie philosophy, but the Tetsuo movies seem to be concerned with a similar inquiry:

Is civilization the dream, the fantasy? Is ultimate reality the mutant of rage inside the human heart? Does it take a radical act of creative destruction to unleash reality? Or can we choose our reality, be it civilization or unbridled chaos and war?

Tetsuo the Bullet Man trailer:



Interview with Shinya Tsukamoto by Raffi Asdourian:





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