ROTTERDAM ADVISORY : a paean to H.Matsumoto’s SYMBOL [9/10], with other festival-recommendations

 Alert! Alert! Chumoku! Chumoku!
   MATSUMOTO Hitoshi’s Symbol (Shinboru) is screening at the International Film Festival Rotterdam on Tuesday 2nd February at 2215 (Luxor), Wednesday 3rd at 1330 (Pathé) and Saturday 6th at 1930 (Cinerama 1).
   Of these three, the former looks the best bet. The 93-year-old Luxor, the only Rotterdam cinema to survive the attentions of the Luftwaffe, is the must-visit IFFR venue – every time I’ve been to the festival, I’m told it will be demolished before the next renewal. It’s a grandly unpretentious one-screen movie-house with mirrored, lightbulb-studded curvatures on the wall, contributing to an “ex-porno” atmosphere. 
   Late evening is also an ideal time to see Symbol, especially if you have a glass or two of fine Belgian beer at the Doelencafe just down the street, opposite the back of the Pathé – don’t be put off by the uninspiring exterior or the fact that the cafe is part of the grimly functional Doelen complex that hosts most of the festival admin.
   Japan has comprehensively dominated the “midnight movie” scene over the past decade or so, the vast majority of which have been showcased by IFFR Rotterdam. My personal picks would be MIIKE Takashi’s Ichi the Killer (2001) and Gozu (2003), and SEKIGUCHI Gen’s Survive Style 5+. Symbol, however, is for me a cut above even that stellar trio – and a quantum leap ahead of director/co-writer/star Matsumoto’s debut Dai Nipponjin (2007), aka Big Man Japan, and not least because it runs a trim 93 minutes compared with Big Man Japan‘s sprawlingly undisciplined 113.
   That said, a little patience is required during the early and middle sections, which switch back and forwards between two separate storylines which the viewer strongly suspects will eventually converge (or maybe not, if they’ve seen Ulrich Seidl’s Import/Export).
   In one storyline, we observe a pyjama-clad, Beatle-mop-topped bozo (played by Matsumoto) who wakes up in a featureless white room where he is afflicted by what might be best described as a series of bizarre phenomena. In the other (which provides the rug-pulling opening sequence), we follow a has-been lucha libre wrestler (David Quintero) in a dusty Mexican backwater. The wrestler’s nom de ring is Escargot Man, his kit amusingly resembling that worn by Randy ‘The Ram’ Robinson, and he’s preparing for his latest bout, with the help of his adoring young son.
   When the two storylines do come together, over an hour in, the initial response is perhaps one of deflation. “Is that it?!”, one may ask, paraphrasing Michael Jackson, perplexed at what seems to be an arbitrary exercise in postmodern scriptwriting from Matsumoto and his co-writer TAKASU Mitsuyoshi.
   But don’t lose faith – what follows sees Symbol quickly take off into the stratosphere, revealing the astonishingly audacious grand design of its structural conceit in a manner that may well leave you wide-eyed in delighted bewilderment (and itching to watch the whole thing over again, pronto.) To say any more would be unfair – criminal, even – and anyone who gives away the climactic “twist” to this divinely delirious, hilariously nightmarish, delightfully inventive and utterly sui generis brain-scrambler wants locking in a white-walled room.

Neil Young
28th January 2010

SYMBOL : [9/10] : Shinboru : MATSUMOTO Hitoshi : 93m : {24/28*} 
seen 23rd January 2010, Fokus cinema, Tromsø (Norway) – public show (complimentary ticket) – Tromsø International Film Festival
* rating upgraded to 26 after 2nd viewing, Ljubljana, November 2010

also recommended at Rotterdam 2010:
Peter Schreiner’s Totó
   showing Fri 29 / Sat 30 / Fri 5 / Sat 6 – details
Vadim Jendreyko’s The Woman with the 5 Elephants
   showing Wed 3 / Thu 4 / Sat 6 – details
Werner Herzog’s The Bad Lieutenant – Port of Call : New Orleans
   showing Thu 30 / Thu 4 / Sat 6 – details
Joao Salaviza’s Arena; Mati Diop’s Atlantiques; G.Abrantes & B.Crotty’s

Visionary Iraq