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Friday, Sept. 11, 2009

'Symbol'

Wrestling with a cosmic Kubrick — for laughs


Every once in a while, a distributor will ask audiences not to reveal anything about a film's ending — a gimmick that became popular with "The Crying Game" (1992).

Symbol Rating: (4 out of 5)
Star Star Star Star Star
Symbol
Angelic messengers — saying what?: A man in pajamas tries to figure it out in Hitoshi Matsumoto's "Symbol."

Director: Hiroshi Matsumoto
Running time: 93 minutes
Language: Japanese
Opens Sept. 12, 2009
[See Japan Times movie listing]

Toho took it up a notch by not screening the last 10 minutes of "20-Seiki Shonen 3" ("20th Century Boys 3") for the press, which I suppose is better than not screening it at all — a tactic U.S. distributors often use to delay critical lambastings until after the all-important opening weekend.

But at Shochiku's press screening of Hitoshi Matsumoto's new comedy "Symbol," I received what for me was a first — a list of five points not to reveal in my review, including anything that happens in the last act.

This kind of makes sense, since the proscribed bits are surprise gags and plot turns, if not all typical spoilers, but it's also annoying since following Shochiku's rules means being vague about what makes "Symbol" special — and special it is.

Anyone who knows Matsumoto's work at all — from his countless TV variety shows to his 2007 directorial debut "Dainipponjin" ("Big Man Japan") — knows that his mind has a comic logic all of its own.

He can play the standard wise-cracking dimwit, as a member of the manzai comedy duo Downtown, but he is also capable of brilliant flights of "what if" wackery that elicit one of two reactions: WTF bemusement or helpless hysterics.

Also, unlike the many Western comics whose on-stage attitudes, from screw-it-all rage (George Carlin) to self-amused cool (Jerry Seinfeld), are artful constructs designed for laughs, Matsumoto seems to have no "sides" at all. He is what he is, with zero pretensions, inhibitions — or fear. In this he recalls Jonathan Winters, the 1960s genius of improv, whose unbridled imagination was paired, unfortunately, to an unhinged mind.

The setup of "Symbol" may not sound promising, comically speaking. It begins with a pudgy pro wrestler in a dusty Mexican town silently preparing for a tag-team bout with younger, stronger opponents. Just about the only one who thinks he can win is his equally pudgy young son, who plans to attend the bout with his grandfather. Will the boy be cruelly disappointed? Haven't we seen this movie before?

Meanwhile, in an alternative universe, a man (Matsumoto) wearing polka-dot pajamas and with a pudding-bowl haircut wakes up on the floor of a big, white room. He has no idea how he got there — all he knows is he wants out, now. And that is about all Shochiku wants me to tell you about the room, though more than half the story takes place there.

I will say, however, that it reminded me of the situation astronaut Dave Bowman finds himself in after his epic voyage across the stars in Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey." Totally isolated and dependent on unseen alien beings, he lives in (or rather is caged in) what looks to be an apartment in a royal palace, with his every physical need attended to. Meanwhile, he is being prepared for a dramatic — and unexplained — transformation.

Matsumoto's take on his character's similar dilemma is comic, with brilliant running gags. But he also keeps a "2001"-ish cosmic hum in the background, reminding us that his hero's story is more than just a laugh machine — that it has a larger, metaphorical aspect as well.

At the same time, Matsumoto keeps us wondering about the Mexican story — we know that somehow the wrestler and the man in the room have to connect, but how? Matsumoto's solution to this problem is obvious enough in hindsight, and gets one of the film's biggest laughs. The section itself, though, plays it mostly straight in a grainy, realistic way influenced by Mexican New Wave cinema, from Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu's "Amore Perros" (2003) and on.

Unlike the many Japanese directors who are satisfied with stilted, amateurish performances from foreigners (or simply don't know any better), Matsumoto makes his Mexican characters believable and sympathetic, while giving their story a finely calibrated comic spin. Even the wrestling scenes are staged for maximum impact, with the full-force body slams making us not only respect the hero's courage — but fear for his life.

The film's focus, however, is the trapped man's desperate interactions with his absurd new world — and how his struggles come to symbolize ours. The ending may strike some as cod-Kubrick — Matsumoto over-reaching for significance — but it struck me as just about right, given the long, careful buildup. Its message is simple enough: Actions have consequences, though our ability to foresee the latter is limited — if not nonexistent.

And the Greatest Actor of All? Does He know the consequences, but not care? "Symbol" doesn't say, save symbolically. The interpretation is up to you.



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