NYAFF 2010: SYMBOL Review

[Our thanks to Joshua Chaplinsky for the following review.]

I don't think I've ever used the word "penis" so many times in a review before.
 

Directed by and starring acclaimed Japanese comedian Hitoshi Matsumoto, Symbol is a film with an interesting duality. On the one hand, it is an existentialist exploration of cause and effect on a grand scale, but it is also a low-brow comedy that is not afraid to resort to dick and fart jokes. The closest comparison I can come up with is two parts Luis Bunuel, a dash of Takashi Miike, and a sprinkling of Kevin Smith (to taste.) If it seems like I'm stretching to come up with a cinematic analog, it's because I am. Matsumoto's followup to Big Man Japan is a unique cinematic experience, and ponders life's big questions in a way no other film has before it. 

It all begins with a nun barreling down US-15 in a rusted-out pickup truck. Well, probably not US-15, as the scene takes place in Mexico, but that's what the watermark in the upper right-hand corner of my screen told me. It is possible I was looking at a catalog number for some sort of screener tracking system, but who knows. If I were to believe that, I would also have to believe that the film was the property of Yoshimoto Kogyo Co., Ltd, because another, more distracting watermark was emblazoned across the screen FOR THE ENTIRE MOVIE. But I digress... 

Cut to a Japanese man (played by Matsumoto) with a haircut straight out of a Mexican soap opera as he wakes up in an empty white room. He notices a small, phallic protuberance on the wall, and out of curiosity (not some unresolved, latent homosexuality,) he can't help but touch it. Hundreds of porcelain cherubs appear, only to be absorbed back into the walls, leaving no evidence of their existence except for their tiny cock and balls. The walls are now covered with them, and of course the man continues to tickle press them.  

Each and every manipulated member elicits a unique tone, accompanied by the appearance of any number of random objects. A toothbrush, sushi, an African native who runs across the room- the notes form a scale and soon the room is filled with assorted bric-a-brac. One such tone causes a door to open in the otherwise secure room, but the escape route is closed off as soon as the man's finger is lifted. At this point, the film becomes an absurd version of Vincenzo Natali's Cube, as the man attempts to utilize the objects and penises in the room to facilitate his escape.  

Some of the funniest sequences in the film involve this elaborate prison break. I especially liked the comic book style animatics used as the man formulates his plans. I am not familiar with his work, but Matsumoto has finely honed comedic chops. He does err on the sophomoric side of humor, but there is an undercurrent of cerebricity to his silliness. The film can be frustrating at times, especially when the character makes decisions like a teenager in a slasher flick, but is otherwise very entertaining.  

Meanwhile, back in Mexico, (forgot about Mexico, didn't you?) a pensive luchador prepares for an important match. What could these two disparate scenarios possibly have to do with one another? That, my friend, is one of the great mysteries of Symbol. And when that mystery is revealed, and the two story-lines finally converged, my reaction was, "eh..." I see what the director was trying to do, but It makes you question the whole point of spending so much time on the luchador in the first place. The silliness of the Cube half of the film invades the Mexico half, bringing its anti-realism with it. This moment was my least favorite. 

But then Symbol morphs into a full on art film, getting all The Fountain on our collective ass. I won't go into detail, but it involves a bright, white light, and many more penises. And President Obama. It's actually kind of poignant.  

Whether or not it all works for you is another story. Symbol can be great fun. There is a charm to its mixture of smart and stupid, and it possesses an element of daring sorely missing from Western cinema. Matsumoto is more than capable, both in front of and behind the camera. He is equally successful working within the constraints of the handheld, verite style of the Mexico scenes, as well as the more refined, stylized Cube scenes. Both halves recall the work of Darren Aronofsky, combining the influence of The Wrestler and The Fountain into one film. But this is not an Aronofsky film. It is a Matsumoto, through and through. And if he continues making original amalgamations such as this one, you might start hearing the films of young directors being compared to his work. 

Symbol screens Sunday, July 4th and Wednesday, July 7th at Walter Reade Theater. Click here for more info and tickets! 

JOSHUA CHAPLINSKY

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