Bullet Ballet (Shinya Tsukamoto, 1998)
Years after his breakthrough film Tetsuo, you can still smell Shinya Tsukamoto's famous fetish with metal --- this time, with the elusive gun (a rare commodity in Japan since owning one is restricted there). The allure of securing one replaces the love for the girlfriend who killed herself upon gaining access to the prohibited weapon. Cash is exchanged; research is voluminous; and marriage licenses are signed; all in order to secure a gun. Tsukamoto, ever the visualist, creates a montage wherein the gun is played with, quite seductively and lovingly, against the formidable light and creating shadows that somewhat remind you of rock and roll erotica.
The quest for a gun lands Goda (Tsukamoto), the corporate bum, in the middle of a gang war. Youth with pointless ambition are occupying the underbellies of Tokyo with their arsenal of home-made weapons (baseball bats covered with nails, lead tubes, etc.). His professional demeanor, an unsure yet desperate step towards the underground, turns him into the ideal target for their street side bullying. The lone princess of the gang Chisato (Kirina Mano) counters the metal fetish with her own set of irresistible pheromones. It's not exactly the formula for hot and steamy sexual encounters as we're talking about speed-addicted youngsters and Tsukamoto's weird sense of romanticism here. The most we get are artsy moments of ennui shared in quiet, sometimes violent but always dispassionate fashion.
Tsukamoto's black and white palette gives a metallic resonance to the hyper-urban affairs. When his camera is still, it almost evokes Japanese cinema of the 50's and 60's with Oshima's directionless youth and Imamura's angry citizens. Then, Tsukamoto convenes his trademark style of on screen mayhem; always accompanied by tight spaces representative of the iron tubes he has become so fond of. There are always extremes in Tsukamoto's filmmaking; the quiet moments are always disrupted by a sudden burst of violence. He takes it to the next level when he counters a three-way chase in the cramped alleyways of Tokyo with Chisato in an ecstatic moment of high-class fantasy in Goda's fully-furnished apartment; of taking calls and living the affluent life.
The metaphor Tsukamoto plays is one of class discontent. The gang-bangers wants to eke out a future from their unlikely lives yet are bound by the codes of honor their group has. They are disgusted by the corporate whores, yet realize the inevitability of them being whores themselves. It's a futile rebellion that will eventually die. Goda's dilemma is much more novel. His intention is to supplant his corporate lifestyle with the live-free and die-free motto of those street urchins he is trained to loathe (and in a way, adore). Initially, the match-up results in broken bones and bloodied faces but as temperatures ease and the distinctions are revealed as merely nominal, similarities pave a semblance of repressed fondness.
The title tricks you to expecting encounters of John Woo or Ringo Lam-caliber. Bullet Ballet is indeed kinetic, but not in a sense that violence is depicted in an operatic manner. One can probably assume that Tsukamoto's bullet ballet alludes to that elusive romanticism that floats and flickers on the volatile surface of Tsukamoto's art form which is all about steel, blood, and noise. Those silent moments of disconnected near-romantic gazes or dormant ambitions to escape the edgy life are the adagio to the otherwise rust-infested madness of Tsukamoto's urban nightmares.