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by Jay Seaver

"Bizarre, even for Japan. And maybe something more."
5 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2010 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: It's been a while since I've seen a movie from Japan that is as thoroughly demented as "Symbol", which means it's been a long time since I've seen ANY movie as crazy and trippy as this. Writer/director/star Hitoshi Matsumoto also did "Big Man Japan", but from what I've read that's positively conventional compared to "Symbol".

The film plays out in two separate locations. In Mexico, a poor but honest man who wrestles lucha libre as "Escargot Man" (Luis Accinelli) prepares for his next tag-team match, with his son (David Quintero) cheering him on, his daughter (Adriana Fricke) looking to find a life that suits her more than her current profession (nun), and his wife (Lilian Tapia) understanding but weary, especially with their son skipping school and being teased for having a lame luchador for a father. And then, well, elsewhere, a Japanese man in a bathrobe (Matsumoto) awakens in a white room that is completely featureless except for an outcropping that looks like a really funny-looking switch. Touching it causes the walls to sprout dozens more (and reveals to the audience that, yes, they are what they look like, which is odd, because I'd always imagined cherubs like the ones they're attached to to be more or less sexless). Pressing any of those causes something to come out of the walls. Can this man use these things to find a way out? And if he does, what's that got to do with the luchador?

In case this point has not been made clear enough, Symbol is downright peculiar. It is also gut-bustingly hilarious. The scenes inside the white room are an improbably but perfect alchemy of absurdity, surrealism, and slapstick. With no-one to talk to, Hatsumoto's character is soon engaging in every kind of silent comedy imaginable, from broad pratfalls to little bits of prop comedy to letting us just admire the confusion and frustration on his face as he simultaneously acclimates to and is driven mad by his imprisonment. Initially, Hatsumoto and co-writer Mitsuyoshi Takasu use the scenes in Mexico as buffers, allowing each little silent comedy routine to stand on its own without bleeding into or being directly compared to others, while also allowing the audience to be surprised anew by this type and level of strangeness. Of course, to be fair, there's something more than a little off-kilter about the Mexican scenes themselves.

As the Japanese man tries to escape, the bits get more complex, with more moving parts, so to speak. Putting aside the obvious physical precision involved, these are actually some of the most skillfully directed comedy sequences one is likely to see; Matsumoto constructs elaborate Rube Goldberg sequences, boosts the absurdity with parodic music, narration, and cutting that gives equal emphasis to both the problem-solving and physical-comedy aspects, somehow increasing audience appreciation for each half to the point where, when the man on-screen makes some progress, the packed house burst into applause.

It's easy to focus on the obviously crazy parts of Symbol, but Matsumoto and company may actually give more time to the other half, which are both complimentary and fairly good in their own right. It's a quirky cast of characters realized quite well: Accinelli gives Escargot Man a weird dignity even though he wears a mask for most if not all of the picture, even if he's also kind of ridiculous. Adriana Fricke is an amusingly prickly chica as Sister Karen, and David Quintero captures boyhood innocence and trust about to be reinforced or shattered. As much as the audience laughs and cheers at the man in the white room, there are both chuckles and some legitimate pulling for Escargot Man to win one for his boy.

The two halves compliment each other visually, too. Again, the easy compliment to give is how sleekly designed and slickly rendered the white-room sequences are, with colorful artifacts slowly and precisely starting to clutter the pristine background, and some pretty spiffy CGI occasionally popping up and looking just the right balance of seamless and unreal. There's something beautiful about the other half of the movie, though - a real feel of sand and dirt to the segments in Mexico. Even though these bits are surreal in their own way, there is a grounding authenticity to them.

Of course, Matsumoto throws us all for a loop or two as the movie makes its way through its three acts - entitled "THE EDUCATION", "THE IMPLEMENTATION", and "THE FUTURE". Even as the end expands the scope of its comedy, it's got a few prize moments that just may drop the audience's jaws in awe as well as surprise. There are ideas buried in it, though discussing them is a matter for another forum, as it wouldn't be proper to spoil or bias you here.

Even those that don't find philosophical weight in "Symbol" should have a great time watching Matsumoto get himself out of the room, though - it's a feast of joyous insanity for anybody who likes strange but well-executed slapstick.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=19456&reviewer=371
originally posted: 09/18/10 08:25:07
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2009 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2010 New York Asian Film Festival For more in the 2010 New York Asian Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2010 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2010 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

10/09/12 Matt Bizzare, Absurd, and brilliant! 5 stars
7/06/12 Tom Crazily Hilariously FUNNY 5 stars
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Directed by
  Hitoshi Matsumoto

Written by
  Hitoshi Matsumoto

  Hitoshi Matsumoto
  Adriana Fricke

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