All posts by Rafael Moreira

CAPSULE: TESTUO II: BODY HAMMER (1992)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Shinya Tsukamoto

PLOT: After receiving a mysterious injection and having his son killed by members of a cult, a man’s body starts to slowly transform into a weapon of flesh and steel as he tracks down the cultists and their leader, the “Metal Fetishist.”

Still from Tetsuo II: Body Hammer (1992)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Body Hammer is a larger-budgeted, more conventional reinterpretation of the original Tetsuo that partially attempts to rationalize its world. By common standards, however, it’s still very much a weird movie, packed with bizarre images and occasional outbursts of the nightmarish industrial madness that defined the first. With the List’s increasingly limited slots and Body Hammer‘s more surreal predecessor already certified, there isn’t a lot of pressure to add this one.

COMMENTS: Shinya Tsukamoto’s first Tetsuo, whose status as a landmark of weird cinema and one of the most defining representatives of the Japanese Cyberpunk film movement is contested by few, was a truly unique, aggressively hyperactive, feverish industrial nightmare set in its own immersive realm. To the dismay of some fans, the sequel is clearly a very distinct effort to craft a more accessible movie, with a structured narrative and a focus on its dramatic plot, and more nuanced and realistic characters along with their emotions and motivations (the protagonist even gets a name). The most obvious departure from the first film’s style is the cold, sterilized color palette (with an emphasis on blue and white) that sets up a robustly clinical and artificial world. Before the transformations kick in, it seems like the humans we see are already machine-like and dehumanized, moving lifelessly through an imposing urban environment that dwarfs and assimilates them. Inevitably, the main character’s metamorphosis into a man-machine hybrid mechanism later on may look like a natural evolution in such surroundings.

The first scenes after the opening credits show Tomoo, Body Hammer’s version of the “salaryman”, waking up and having breakfast with his wife and child while discussing a dream from the previous night. These initial moments would be almost casual if it wasn’t for Tsukamoto’s insistence on unconventional angles and a fluid camera that freely hovers and rotates. After the family is assaulted in a mall by a group of mysterious skinheads who kidnap the son and trigger Tomoo’s transformation with an injection, setting the main plot course in motion, we get the first glimpses of the original story. It’s easy to say that the more expository approach of the sequel robs it of the magic and low-budget charm that made the first so memorable and unique, but the sensibility behind it is the same. To describe it simply, Body Hammer feels like an intersection between our familiar world and the alternative, hallucinatory logic that governs the first Tetsuo universe. As such, it’s more accessible, but there are never any signs of the auteur’s vision being hampered by the imperatives of telling a coherent story.

In fact, Tsukamoto’s directorial tics shine through the film. Sometimes, he interrupts the narrative’s course with bizarre montages mirroring Tomoo’s grotesque mutation. It helps that the film grows progressively stranger and closer to its predecessor’s insanely energetic pace, with furious imagery of sprawling wires, cables, pipes and random metallic parts that overpower and merge with fragile flesh, with the difference being that here they are lightly mediated by a contextual plot. As the movie approaches the climatic confrontation between Tomoo and the fetishist, it even presents us an explanatory flashback that clarifies the antagonist’s motivations and introduces a final twist related to his relationship with the main character. This sudden device comes completely unexpected, mainly because we would never guess that Tsukamoto would show such a preoccupation with the narrative’s background. Even this passage, however, is infused with his surrealistic style, and it may actually contain the film’s ultimate surreal set piece, culminating in a murder scene that manages to be simultaneously gory, dreamlike and touching.

The additions to the Tetsuo mythology, possible through the bigger budget, are also welcome. It is, for example, nice to see a whole cult of metal worshipers operating, instead of a sole maniac like the original, as well as further inventive variants of the bloody and biomechanical mutations of flesh, steel and rust.

The consensus on Body Hammer is positive, but a number of fans show discontent with what they see as an ill-fated attempt at making sense out of the perfectly irrational fable that was the original. To a certain extent, they are correct. But the decision to flesh out the character dynamics and lend emotional weight to the chaotic events on screen, works because it passively accepts and coexists with the absurdity of the film’s plot. In the end, Body Hammer is immersed in its mix of alien atmosphere and cold, fantastical reality, making it both a satisfyingly strange movie and a distinct enough one from the original.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Tsukamoto’s preoccupations with meta(l)morphosis, body horror and unchecked masculinity remain firmly in place, as does the writer/director’s way with outrageous images and ideas.”–Anton Bitel, Eye for Film

READER RECOMMENDATION: CRIMES OF THE FUTURE (1970)

Reader review by Rafael Moreira

DIRECTED BY:

CAST: Ronald Mlodzik, Jon Lidolt, Tania Zolty

PLOT: Adrian Tripod, director of a dermatological clinic called House of Skin, wanders in search of his mentor, Antoine Rouge, who has mysteriously disappeared after a catastrophic plague related to cosmetic products kills the entire population of sexually mature women.

Still from Crimes of the Future (1970)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Crimes of the Future is chock full of Cronenberg’s characteristic, and characteristically weird, themes of the relationship between the mind and body and their fragilities and possible degradations. What makes it different from his future efforts is that the film’s null budget renders it underproduced, alienated and experimental in ways that both augment its weirdness and undermines its cinematicness. The fact that it is shot silent with a commentary added later only feeds the dreamy, disassociated atmosphere.

COMMENTS: Crimes of the Future was the venerated and singular ‘s second film, made, like his first (Stereo), with minimal resources. Despite being his most inaccessible works, the main surprise is how these early films reflect Cronenberg’s unique, consistent persona and the preoccupations on which he has meditated in his whole oeuvre.

Crimes‘s practically nonexistent budget both limits and enhances its weirdness. On one hand, Cronenberg’s signature ideas are denied full realization, but his way of working around the lack of resources lends the film an utterly abstract presentation. One could describe the movie as a seemingly disconnected succession of scenes of people interacting and behaving strangely in clinical spaces and shadowy corridors, only made meaningful by the somnambulant commentary of Ronald Mlodzik. Another key agent of weirdness is the truly bizarre soundscape that Cronenberg crafted, which, when not silent, consists mostly of indistinct atmospheric sounds and white noise. There are very few moments where the music seems to be in tune with what’s happening on screen, rather than serving as an obscure, sometimes disturbing background ambiance.

The film’s glacial tone and sense of detachment is reminiscent of THX 1138 at times. The audience’s reliance on the commentary by protagonist Adrian Tripod to make sense of the movie’s distant, cryptic images further increases its dreamlike quality. Sometimes, the narration is itself bizarre, as it has to communicate the insular world where Crimes takes places—a world that, while visually familiar, is otherworldly in its character’s strange behaviors, its enigmatic corporations and, of course, the central premise of its sudden defeminization.

The most curious aspect of the experience of watching Crimes is noting how, even under the restrictive budget and obscuring experimental approach, Cronenberg’s defining obsessions of the flesh, body, sexuality, disease, and mutation are all present in full force. If one can get past the film’s impenetrable nature, Tripod’s regular voice-over actually reveals a typically surreal, purely Cronenbergian narrative rich in visceral details. As he journeys through a succession of organizations, the odd individuals he meets all present a form of derangement or peculiarity reflective of Cronenberg’s themes, as each of them adapts to the great change in their own way. For instance, a former colleague of Tripod from the “Institute of Neo-Venereal Disease” has contracted a “creative cancer” from one of his patients, causing his body to continually form a series of organs that are removed in what many have interpreted as a parody of childbirth, while a concierge believes he is developing a root-like antenna from his nostrils as an evolutionary step.

Crimes feels like a sketch of the director’s imagination, fully revealing the sensibility behind his more mellow and professional works, but shadowed by its foggy experimentality and lack of resources. If patient weirdophiles can go with Cronenberg’s pretense of crafting more of a film experiment than a film, they will find it an undeniably interesting, if hard to watch, experience.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… where Stereo was both creepy and austere, Crimes of the Future gives its remarkable characters more room to breathe and, in their own weird way, to play, picking their way around a modernist compound and narrated retroactively by the main character. It is fascinating viewing, and it’s always interesting to note what an acclaimed, spiky filmmaker was doing in his early career.”–Juliette Jones, PopOptiq (DVD)

[Crimes of the Future is included, along with Stereo, as bonus features on Blue Underground’s release of Cronenberg’s Fast Company–ed.]