Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Capsules: Tetsuo: The Iron Man (Tsukamoto, 1988)/The Road Home (Yimou, 1999)

Tetsuo: The Iron Man (Tsukamoto, 1988)
Tetsuo is a film that could potentially raise and explore many interesting questions and concepts, but in actuality it's the most overt attempt to disorient the viewer while being graphically subversive I have witnessed. I think a mechanical penis is a great idea (it's also in Tsukamoto's A Snake of June), I just think there are better ways of presenting it, and anything else the film throws at us.

The camera is needlessly shaky, the editing needlessly nervous and frantic. This is in a way that actually detracts from the film; while some level of erratic camera work with perhaps a mechanical flourish would complement the film's subject matter nicely, this is just obtrusive and leads to incoherence. Equally erratic is the films approach to its titular Iron Man: one moment he's exploring his mechanical body as a means of psychosexual release and escape from male paranoia (he's literally fucked by a female's biomechanical penis before turning the tables on her with a rotary phallus of his own), the next he's engaged in some Dragon Ball Z battle in fast forward. This is subversive pop culture for the MTV generation, entirely schizophrenic in every aspect of its construction.

A literal minded approach to the film's title could result in a great film, but this just isn't it. I wish I could like it, and on a certain level the other two Tsukamoto films I've seen (A Snake of June and Vital), but he's too busy living up to the "extreme" in "extreme Asian cinema!" to say anything meaningful.

The Road Home (Yimou, 1999)
The Road Home is a visually arresting, very sweet, somewhat slight, wholly enjoyable melodrama that is a meditation on love, the merit of tradition, the role of education in Chinese culture, and tinged with muted political ideas that are more implicit than thematic certainties.

The film opens with flat black and white cinematography, as the present is a time for mourning. A man has died, and his son returns from the city to see his mother. He learns she desires a highly ceremonial carrying of his body back home by men, and watches as she weaves a likewise ceremonial cloth. In her room are two Titanic posters, which do several things: orient the viewer in the proper present-day time frame, explicate Western culture's advance into Eastern lives, allude to another film with some similar themes (arguably, this film undermines their handling in the Cameron film), and perhaps also alludes to the actual sinking of the Titanic, in that a picture about loss in modernity has certain tangents to that story. While looking at pictures, the flashback that is the body of the picture is initiated.

The past is in vibrant color, very idealized, and seems very pleasant. That is because this is a past of personal mythology: this is the story of the school teacher and his wife's courtship that the entire village knows, and as such it has become ritual in itself. The woman, as a young girl, is weaving a cloth for the construction of a new building (as opposed to the cloth of mourning she weaves in 1999). Their courtship advances largely in glances and silent gestures (special meals cooked by the girl, hoping her would-be suitor will select hers from among those of the other girls). It's difficult not to have a silly grin on your face: this story is cute, plain 'n simple.

The man is taken away for political reasons. He hangs a red flag on the ceiling of his classroom, and I think I recognized a portrait of Mao Zedong. He likes the girl's red jacket most of all. If I knew more about Chinese history, I'm sure I could elucidate the political message here (something to do with communism), but I don't. It doesn't detract from the film, though it probably would be enriched with an understanding of this aspect. Regardless, we know the man will return, and he does.

The words written by the schoolmaster tend to sum up the various themes in the film. One of them is "Know the present, know the past." Rarely is that idea explicated as fully, vibrantly, and passionately as it is here.


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