Monday, September 28, 2009

Toronto FilmFest Reviews: Shinboru (Symbol)

When is a subgenre born? Does it simply derive from a formula or certain elements that are reused often enough? Or can it be a set of expectations you bring into the theater with you? I ask because Symbol seems to be deliberately riffing on all of these things, trying to find the line where familiar tropes become, well, symbols. It plays both with a familiar subgenre and a less-familiar setup that's on the verge of becoming a subgenre at this point; you could even argue that this is the movie that pushes it over.

For most of its running time, Symbol seems to be two completely unrelated movies running parallel to each other. One is a Mexican Lucha Libre movie (or maybe "short film" is more appropriate, given the relatively small amount of running time it involves). It's perfectly conventionally shot and with a simple narrative; the wrestler Escargot Man prepares for a tag team match, while a kid in the audience cheers him on.

The other storyline is deliberately, seemingly perversely different. A nameless Japanese man (comedian Hitoshi Matsumoto, who also wrote and directed) wakes up in a featureless white room about the size of a bachelor apartment, wearing a set of candy-coloured pajamas and a ridiculous bowl cut. He has no idea how he got there. Exploring the room, he finds exactly one notable feature: a button on the wall shaped like, uh, male genitalia. Pressing it triggers an explosion of cherubs from the wall, who leave behind...more penis-shaped buttons. Pressing those buttons, in turn, triggers a bizarre and seemingly useless array of objects that come shooting out of the walls, along with other, generally disagreeable effects (like one which turns into a butt and farts toxic fumes at him). Eventually, though, some of the buttons start to reveal their potential usefulness in mounting an escape...except that whoever trapped him in this room seems determined to screw with his head.

Believe it or not, all this weirdness turns out to be headed somewhere relatively straightforward. I mean, it's still a weird movie that I'm sure even Matsumoto wouldn't be able to explain completely, employing as it does Lynchian dream logic and a love of the absurd for the absurd's sake. But the two threads do end up coming together in a way that...well, "makes sense" might not be the way to put it, but they do come together to make a point. The movie makes an attempt at profundity near the end which is a lot more palatable for being weird and slightly inexplicable.

Up until then, aside from the slight and seemingly straightforward Luchadore subplot, the movie is a one-man show. Matsumoto unfortunately depends a little too much on mugging and acting zanily idiotic--the character he's playing makes a number of choices that reveal him to be a dimbulb--but the situation is a natural one for humour, especially as the faceless forces that control the room seem to enjoy tormenting him. There's also a hilarious recurring sequence in which comic book panels narrate Pajamas Guy's various plans for escape while Matsumoto grooves out in the foreground. (And the narration is in English for some reason!)

I'm not sure if "Shinboru" has some other shading of meaning that doesn't translate well into English--I'm assuming that the Symbol of the title refers to the little penis-buttons (yeah, I knew writing this review was going to be awkward), but it also seems to relate to the various motifs and elements we expect in a genre story, and the storyteller's attempt to break free of them. In that sense, this is an extremely meta movie. One thing's for sure, if the movie's about helping to define genres, than its clearly staking out a patch of ground under "bizarre Japanese mindf***".

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