The Guys From Paradise

2 out of 5

Directed by: Takashi Miike

One of the rare Miike films that, to me, seems to work better as metaphor than it does in its actual execution.  There are definitely some inspired touches and sequences, and the top-down construction of the film is a fascinating sidestep to any direction we’d generally assume a prison drama/action/comedy thing might go, but some poor acting and a somewhat unmotivated (via what’s on screen) pairing of the lead group of characters we follow left me quite uninvested in the movie.

Miike’s plots are rarely directly the draw, and I wouldn’t say that his flicks are stocked with standout performances, but when consuming enough of his films and listening to his behind-the-scenes thoughts on filmmaking, it’s clear he embraces a very organic approach to construction: actors are encouraged to go with what they’re feeling in a scene; scripts are guidelines.  This is why even some of his sketchiest efforts have bursts of value in them, and why analysts like Tom Mes have been able to draw thematic throughlines across Miike’s 100+ films.  This also doesn’t prevent the director from pursuing more strictly artistic endeavor, but those films tend to exist in a clearly ‘other’ framework, more surreal or otherworldly from start to finish.  The counterpoint to this, for sure, are flicks like Dead or Alive, which crawl from yakuza to anime fireballs, seemingly straddling real and unreal, but I’d say that DoA (and other movies of Takashi’s that allow for this) embrace a certain cartoonishness throughout.

Guys From Paradise concerns a white collar criminal (played by Koji Kikkawa) who’s serving time in a Phillipines prison for transporting heroin.  Shocked at the un-white collar conditions in which he’s staying, he’s also shocked to find out that he can pay to rent a slightly cleaner, more isolated Japanese portion of the prison, and that by teaming up with another, older prisoner with money to toss around (played by Tsutomu Yamazaki), he can actually wander freely outside of the prison as well; Paradise – the name of the prison – may be just that: isolated from the standing, family, and relationship concerns of day to day life; alternately, life in incarceration may not be so different from life before.  This is a fascinating setup, enlivened by some other oddballs in the Japanese section of the prison, and an engaging performance by Yamazaki and Miike regular Kenichi Endo.  At the same time, Kikkawa is painfully stiff throughout, lines delivered like cuecards and physical responses ill-timed to whatever he’s reacting to, and the culture stew of the prison has a lot of English that most of the actors are completely unable to deliver – words and actions not in sync at all.  (This always makes me wonder how American actors delivering foreign lines must come across to those speaking the original language…)  The mish-mash of half-good / half-unfortunate performances seems to carry over to the story, which seems more driven by its metaphor of Japan’s relationship to its geographic neighbors than with making us invested in our prisoners’ mix-up in mob business that necessitates an escape-with-the-money plan in the movie’s latter half.  It’s never quite clear what part of the movie – the characters, the drama, the comedy of the prison social mish-mash – is supposed to be guiding us, and again, this is quite different from Miike’s usual lead-by-inspiration; it more feels like we’re chasing something that Kikkawa and some of the other actors are unable to bring to life.

This is further suggested by the humorous ending, which pushes the inversion of life-in-prison to the fullest extent, and suggests a really whipsmart version of this flick that was more cued in to more black comedy and commentary throughout.