Tuesday, March 30, 2010

HKIFF Film review 影評: Symbol 睡衣男異次元空間

Original Japanese title: しんぼる
Director: Hitsohi Matsumoto 松本人志, David Quintero
Length: 93 mins
Year: 2009

A comedy superstar in Japan, Hitoshi Matsumoto's directorial debut Dai Nipponjin 大日本人 (aka Big Man Japan) was a welcome introduction of postmodern revisionism to the Japanese superhero genre, as well as (to leave off my academic pretenses) being simply a hilarious popcorn movie. Hitoshi's ambitions in his second film Symbol are epic in comparison, scrapping narrative for physical gags and rounding up with another bizarre but possibly serious surprise, but the final product falls short in the comedy department.

Two seemingly separate narratives occupy the film, which is obliquely divided into titles 'The Education', 'The Implementation' and 'The Future'. We begin with a straight tale, where a has-been Mexican luchador Escargotman (David Quintero) prepares for a tag team fight while his family and a foul-mouthed nun support him. Intercutting back and forth is the second story, where we see Hitoshi playing a pajama-clad (something inspired by Yayoi Kusama 草間彌生?) unnamed character trapped in a Pavlovian white room furnished with boy angels' penises. We see the tribulations of Hitoshi trying to escape by using objects dispensed by triggering the penises. Hence the amusement in Symbol.

What makes a good Japanese TV game show doesn't necessarily make a good comedy film. It's abundantly clear in Dai Nipponjin that Hitoshi doesn't aim for the rapid-gag factor, and part of the enjoyment in that film is in witnessing the miserable ordinary life that the protagonist leads. However in Symbol, Hitoshi resorts to rather simple jokes that get repetitive and tiresome. There's still the loser persona and the deliberate pacing within the jokes (a certain sushi sequence springs into mind), but this time around I found myself increasingly straining to laugh at the gags.

Symbol's third act slightly redeems itself by going all out in absurdity. The two narratives finally intertwine, and the film lurches towards a global, metaphysical, philosophical, and perhaps religious dimension (thanks for the spoilers in your programme synopsis, HKIFF). Nonetheless, by the end of the film we're left with a middling head-scratcher rather than a complementing ooh-ah moment.

Then again, maybe I wasn't in the mood that day... (can Variety, The Hollywood Reporter or Twitchfilm be wrong?)

Symbol is showing in the HKIFF.