This slick Nippon effort treads into extreme sex-and-violence fantasy terrain that seems unlikely to find many fans offshore. While similarly outre pix like “Iron Man” or “Wicked City” have won limited midnight play in the West, short running time and queasy gay-sadism theme make “Muscle” (somewhat misleadingly retitled from its original “Lunatic Theatre”) best suited for specialty vid stores.
Somber young hero Ryuzaki, once editor of a bodybuilding magazine, is obsessed with two things: locating a print of late Italo helmer Pasolini’s notorious Sade-based swan song, “Salo,” and reuniting with ex-lover Kitami. Seems he’d missed the flick’s original run — due to a prison sentence incurred when the duo’s increasingly over-the-top sex sessions resulted in one lopped-off limb. Now he’s back on the street, scoping for a “one-armed man” whose severed part has been preserved in a long jar.
Mysterious events occur en route to final score-settling at the Lunatic Theatre cinema. A dominatrix offers up her abusive services to the disinterested protag; a young male prostitute and older man at the waterfront (later rattling off a personal history borrowed from Pasolini’s “Teorema”) likewise annoy hero.
Sexual sequences (including fantasies and flashbacks) stop just short of hardcore. Strenuous tumbling is rendered a bit silly by visibly inert male genitalia, while bizarre aspects — including one episode that involves margarine (an homage to Bertolucci?) and chest-knifing — will strike most as a mixture of the grotesque and the ludicrous. Director Hisayasu Sato suggests black-comedy tenor at times, as when hero goes around posting “Missing” flyers for his lover, each illustrated with a single silhouetted arm.
But mostly “Muscle” is solemnly, rather pretentiously serious. Dreamlike mood recalls such classic underground fetish scenarios as “The Story of O.” Lensing is sharp, often formally composed to a sterile degree. Additional tech qualities and perfs are OK. S&M tastes in the U.S. seem tilted toward more harmless power-balance role playing; “Muscle’s” leap to actual dismemberment, et al. had the S.F. Gay Fest’s packed opening night aud exiting in droves throughout.