PCR past banners
Now in our sixth calendar year
PCR #272  (Vol. 6, No. 23)  This edition is for the week of June 6--12, 2005.

"Mr. And Mrs. Smith"
 by Mike Smith
Tetsuo: The Iron Man
 by Peter Card
I'm Back....You Go, Iraqis....Revenge of the Madagascar....Fuel Some Flames
 by Brandon Jones
One of the Great Ones....Who Was The Graduate....Happy Birthday....Where's Matt?...JAWSFEST
 by Mike Smith
Archives of Nolan's Pop Culture Review
Archives 2005
Archives 2004
Archives 2003
Archives 2002
Archives 2001
Archives 2000
Email PCR

Asian Film Update by Peter Card

Tetsuo: The Iron Man
“It's just torture and murder. No plot, no characters, very realistic. I think it's the next thing.”

This week’s update lambasts Tetsuo: The Iron Man and takes random potshots at the Asian shock cinema of today. This morning I sat down to experience the thrill ride of a lifetime, Tetsuo directed by Shinya Tsukamoto. The 1988 Tsukamoto "masterpiece" runs slightly over an hour although it felt like 100 minutes. Just like the ten episode Dragon Ball Z fights I have heard kids talk about, Tetsuo is one endless overlong fight. Tetsuo has no plot and proudly features one-dimensional characters. What Tetsuo lacks in story, it makes up for in gross-out imagery and special effects. There are plenty of people who enjoy films or shows like this and I do not hold this against them. Nor do I really have any grievances with the director himself. He shot this thing low budget, on 16mm and spent plenty of time getting the effects amongst many other things right to create a live action shock fest.

My main problem is the trend that followed after this film and people’s response to Tetsuo. I have heard and read a large variety of reactions to the film and here I will paraphrase and list the most popular ones.

Like nothing you’ve ever seen before! In the tradition of Lynch, Cronenberg and Anime, this movie is fucked up! Like Eraserhead this is a journey into hell. A surreal trip like Un Chien Andalou.

The quote at the top of the page is from Videodrome (1983) a great example of the visceral horror that Cronenberg had become famous for since the 1970s. Videodrome centers on a character obsessed with pushing the limits of violence and sex on television and the eventual breakdown of the man and his desires. This film incorporates graphic violence with a firm message about our fascination with the media. Unfortunately, some Japanese filmmakers still have not gotten over Videodrome and they continue to recreate the shock of the film at the expense of imbuing any meaning in their films. The same goes for their reaction to Lynch. I had the misfortune to see Takashi Miike’s Gozu last year and that film was one "homage" after the other to Blue Velvet and quite cleverly (sarcasm) to the stomach pop of Alien. I did not enjoy the film at all and my resentment comes from hearing countless people tell me how original Miike is. If Miike and Tsukamoto want to make fun little movies that alternate between sadism and hilarity then fine, I won’t go see your movie but I won’t complain that it exists. However critical and audience response lifts this filmmaking on a pedestal and compares it to truly original films or even art. I’m particularly surprised how no one seems to notice(?) the film’s huge nod to perhaps the most popular manga series ever, Akira. The conflicted boy, Tetsuo (from Akira) undergoes a transformation that Tsukamoto seems to have copied quite closely. He even named the bloody film Tetsuo! However, where the creator of Akira Katsuhiro Otomo chose to focus on many characters to develop a narrative, Tsukamoto stuck with the one character that was being transformed. Unfortunately, the man has little to say except “Stop! Don’t!” With no story to tell, Tsukamoto has no choice but to incessantly depict the man being transformed, and once the character has become a fully Iron Man, Tsukamoto makes the film jump realities, i.e. The film’s "channel" changes or the camera zooms out to show the man in a TV. By jumping to another plane of reality or dream he can show the man as not afflicted yet so that he can once again go under the transformation. When the man is not transforming then he is either attacking or being attacked. The humor of the film comes from his drill bit penis and the saxophone music cues. These bits of humor offset the film’s violence which often evokes the response, “That sh** is fu**ed up!”

This brings me to the Eraserhead comparison. Eraserhead focuses on a character whose situation is slowly getting out of control and at a very leisurely pace eventually reaches the climax in which the character or at least the film’s reality changes. Compare this with Tetsuo, The main character’s change is from human to metal and at a frantic pace. Since the film is at a breakneck speed there really is nothing else for the character to do but flip flop from human to iron. How amazing, eh? Where Eraserhead creates atmosphere, Tetsuo creates effects. The most notable difference between the films is by comparing the directors’ first feature films to their body of work. Moments of Eraserhead can be read as dress rehearsals for his later films. The family scenes at the dinner table carry the tone and theme of Blue Velvet. The relationship between the main character and the woman feel close to those of Wild at Heart. Eraserhead crosses so many genres that it is conceivable for Lynch to go from his first film to any one of the genres he touched on and so he did. Viewing Tetsuo, it only adds up to more shock films and so it was the path that Tsukamoto’s career took.

Perhaps the most confused comments out of them all are the weak connection between surrealism and the film. Perhaps they mean dada especially if they are thinking of Un Chien Andalou. Making works of art that defied reasoning or explanation shocked the viewers and opened the imaginations of many artists. That was a necessary movement in art we were able to progress from the boldness of those artists. The acceptance of nonsense had long past before Tetsuo or Gozu came along so what can the directors do if they can’t shock us with their gore, why make a joke out of it! Yes, the oldest trick in the book and people act like they are progressive. Worst of all, since the film lacks any coherence or strong message, viewers often apply thousands of hidden messages and interpretations to the film. If its dada, how can it have so much to say?

If any long-time readers of my column are thinking, "Hey wait a minute! He liked Oldboy!" Yes, Oldboy is often lumped into the category of shock cinema, but Oldboy featured a very strong main character that I really cared about and the moments of shock and violence were actually justified through its narrative. Indeed, Oldboy gives me hope for the Asian shock sub-genre and actually gave me the courage to watch Tetsuo. Well I guess I can’t win them all.

So in closing, send me tons of mail saying “I think Tsukamoto and Miike’s films are fun little movies that I watch to relax but I never take them serious.” If that became the popular opinion then I’d change what I said here, but hell if I’m going to watch them.

Cya next week!

"Asian Film Update" is ©2005 by Peter Card.  Webpage design and all graphics herein (except where otherwise noted) are creations of Nolan B. Canova.  All contents of Nolan's Pop Culture Review are ©2005 by Nolan B. Canova.