Symbol -- Film Review

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BUSAN, South Korea -- Priapism is elevated to cosmic proportions by Japanese radio-TV comedian Hitoshi Matsumoto ("Dainipponjin") in his second directorial outing, "Symbol." Juggling two ostensibly divergent yarns about a Mexican pro-wrestler trapped in the ring and an anonymous Japanese man trapped in a room controlled by phalluses, the script works itself (and the two men) into a sweat for 93 minutes just for one punch line -- but a pretty wacky one at that.

Festival gigs for "Symbol" are coming hot on the heels of its Toronto international premiere. After those, it would probably show up in small but hip cinephile theater venues. The film is for those who can appreciate two kinds of humor -- expressly physical and mystically cerebral -- in one single film or one single gag. Otherwise, the absurdist comic routines are often as repetitive and self-pleasing as masturbation.

The Mexican section documents over-the-hill wrestler Escargotman's (David Quintero) dowdy family life and the run-up for a match. This takes ages to warm up dramatically, before it dawns on you that his opponents are vicious beasts, and you begin to worry that he'll leave the ring in a stretcher -- or a coffin.

One gauges how radical Matsumoto's comic concept is, by his devotion of half the running time to narrating in a pseudo-Inaritu grundgy-realist style completely devoid of humor, for the sake of the final twist.

Less poker-faced in tone, but infinitely more far-out, are the gambols of a man in polka-dotted pajamas, who finds himself imprisoned in the kind of padded white room for straitjacketed mental patients. The "padding" though, is wall-to-wall cherub genitalia. He finds out by trial and error that pressing the plastic penises yields a random assortment of things, from bonsai to a darting tribesman to a bum that farts in his face.

How he susses out the design in this phallic order to make his escape becomes the movie's symbolic exposition on causality. Matsumoto is a brilliant mime artist, and his comic timing for pure slapstick that goes nowhere 45 minutes in, is dead-on.

But the very gags dramatizing frustration, notwithstanding nifty CGI -- like getting sushi without soy sauce, or a manga series with one volume missing -- are on the brink of annoying.

The Kubrick-influenced ending could arouse an orgy of interpretations.

Pusan International Film Festival -- Gala Presentation

Production: Yoshimoto Kogyo Co. Ltd, Phantom Film, Aoi Promotion

Cast: Hitoshi Matsumoto, David Quintero
Director: Hitoshi Matsumoto
Screenwriters: Hitoshi Matsumoto Mitsuyoshi Takasu
Producer: Akihiko Okamoto
Executive producers: Hiroshi Osaki, Isao Yoshino
Director of photography: Yasuyuki Toyama
Production designer: Etsuko Aiko
Music: Yasuaki Shimizu
Costume designer: Noriko Kodo
Editor: Yoshitaka Honda
Sales: Yoshimoto Kogyo Co. Ltd
No rating, 93 minutes
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