Sitges 2009: TETSUO THE BULLET MAN Review

Todd Brown, Founder and Editor
Brace yourself for disappointment.  As painful as it is to say, Shinya Tsukamoto's Tetsuo The Bulletman is far indeed from being the triumphant return to the iconic world that created a rabid cult around Tsukamoto.  Worse than that, not only does this latest incarnation of Tetsuo fail to live up to his predecessors but he also represents the first, one hundred percent, abject failure of Tsukamoto's career. 

The first of Tsukamoto's films to be shot in English - part of the problem but far from the most significant - Tetsuo The Bulletman stars Eric Bossick as Anthony, a young white man born and raised in Tokyo by his researcher-father who is now raising a young family of his own.  It should be a happy time in Anthony's life but his wife is plagued by crippling anxiety, anxiety that largely prevents her from leaving their home and centers on recurring nightmares around a horrible fate for the pair's young son Tom.

Tragically, those dreams turn out to be prophetic and Tom is cruelly run down by a car in the street.  Anthony tries to hold it together, much to the anger of his wife who wants to see him fly into a rage.  And Anthony does eventually lose the firm grip he has on his emotions, the slide into anger triggering a bizarre transformation within his own body, Anthony transforming into a strange metallic monster much to the delight of the strange man - Tsukamoto himself - who ran down Tom and continues to taunt Anthony from a distance.

The first question people had of this new Tetsuo film was why english?  And the answer is the obvious one: it's an attempt to play to the international market.  But it's one that won't work.  Not because the actor's aren't good but because Tsukamoto has all of them deliver their lines in a bizarre rhythm and heightened style that obviously owes much to the director's own history in experimental theater but thoroughly prevents us from being able to tell if they're any good or not.  They could be good.  They could be horrible.  But working under the strictures laid down by their director - and I have no doubt whatsoever that he got exactly what he wanted here in terms of performance - nobody in the audience will ever know.

Much more significant are flaws in the script itself and the shooting style.  Previous Tetsuo films took much of their power from their ambiguity.  They were all about impulse and raw emotion spilling over, the script's vague enough to allow the audience to read their own interpretations of what is happening and why into the proceedings.  Not so here, Tsukamoto not only giving in to the urge to explain too much but also doing an exceptional poor job of it, dipping into entirely unearned melodrama territory in devastatingly haphazard fashion.  Not only is the why of Anthony's transformation entirely unsatisfying but it is delivered in such poor fashion that even the greatest treatise ever written on man-machine fusions wouldn't have done the trick.

Compounding the script problems are Tsukamoto's choice to shoot in high def digital while employing remarkably shoddy - and entirely unconvincing - special effects work.  Tetsuo films in the past have been marked by their grit, the grainy shooting style perfectly matching the visceral transformations and allowing the audience to buy into Tokyo as an alternate world where this could really happen.  The ultra-high crispness of digital - even when framed and lit in vintage Tsukamoto style - simply undoes this effect.  Everything is too clean, too defined and Tokyo simply looks like Tokyo.  Even worse, the shift to high definition badly exposes the special effects.  Anthony doesn't look like metal, he looks like rubber.  He wobbles.  The texture is all wrong.  Rather than turning in to a beast of organic metal, Anthony simply becomes a lump of unimpressive latex.

An enormous disappointment, the only way Tetsuo The Bullet Man could ever be considered a success is if Tsukamoto's goal in making it was to prevent anyone from ever asking him to make another.
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