This piece was co-written with Ben Sachs.
Here’s one of Takashi Miike’s favorite directorial techniques: let the shot go on for too long. The usual approach is to roll, call “action,” have the performers act out whatever the script instructs and wait for a few seconds after the action’s done to call “cut.” But if the script describes a shot 10 seconds long, make it a minute or a minute-and-a-half. And don't just film people staring at each other (unless you really want to): give them something to do, even if that means they'll undermine the tone of whatever it was they were doing before. Don't film what the script instructs, film what the script offers the possibility for or what it suggests.
It's through this mode of thinking that Miike has managed to make the sorts of films he has while working with what are essentially B-film set-ups; famously intuitive (and famous for making many of his films from fairly straightforward scripts), he never transcends the material, but instead looks into it. When a take is long enough, drama eventually fades into absurdity, or the absurd takes on an element of poignancy. The best Miike films are set in a sort of twilight, where a joke premise is transformed into drama and moments of absolute seriousness are followed by non-sequitur punchlines, often within the same shot.
The Guys from Paradise, Miike’s second feature of 2000 (he'd finish four that year, plus a TV series), is a prison movie set and filmed in the Philippines. Kohei Hayasake (singer / former water polo player Kôji Kikkawa), a prim young corporate type in wireframes, has been arrested for smuggling a kilogram of heroin. We assume he's framed—he claims so, and that's the way these kinds of movies are supposed to go, right? He’s Japanese, so the warders send him to live with three other Japanese prisoners while he awaits trial. They charge him rent to live in the cell, which is distinguished only by its sparseness and the presence of a tiny Japanese flag. If found guilty, Hayasake could be sentenced to death. His legal defense is being overseen by an incompetent lawyer and a colleague from Sanyu Trading (Kazuhiko Kaneyama) who stands to benefit, financially and romantically, from Hayasake's imprisonment or untimely passing.
In what could be called a Tashlin joke, incarcerated men resume their professions in prison. Businessmen invent new businesses, trading ties and suits for wifebeaters and flip-flops. Yoshida (Tsutomu Yamazaki), a shady character who claimsto have yakuza connections, lives happily in exile from Japan. He's had his cell converted into an office, complete with leather furniture, a decorative fruit basket on the coffee table and a doting transvestite secretary.
In what could only be a Miike joke, no one is actually “imprisoned” in The Guys from Paradise. It’s hard to think of another movie where characters escape from jail as easily or as often. Really, they don’t even escape—they just walk straight out, giving their bribes to the guard as if they were tipping the doorman. The prison is a high security condo with poor plumbing. In a way, this set-up is a reversal of the plot of Bunuel’s Exterminating Angel, in which a group of friends have every liberty to leave their living room but can’t. Though the characters have a nominal excuse to leave (they’re running a drug operation with the warden and they need to make deliveries), seeing convicts spend so much time out of jail is still subversively resonant. They take motor-taxis around town, go out to eat and even steal a Jeepney.
The premise would imply outrage about institutional corruption in the Philippines, but Miike is as casual about corruption as Bunuel was, if not more so. Most of the time, The Guys from Paradise plays like a laid-back ensemble comedy along the lines of Hatari! or Donovan’s Reef—and it’s just as content to laze in humid sunlight as those films were, and to occasionally bask in shadow.
Many key scenes in the film transpire in single takes. The camera, stationary, has been placed a few meters away from the action. There is, like in a lot of Miike's films, more than a touch of Hou Hsiao-Hsien to this approach (direct-sound and real locations are integral to these sequences), but the on-screen behavior is often so cartoonish that what we’re watching could not be mistaken for realism. Or could it? With so little interfering with the performances (which, as in any good Miike film, range from stern cool to wide-eyed & spastic), the film often works as a document of people acting out for each other (as opposed to an audience)—which is appropriate for a movie about friendships made in prison. The (occasionally) incarcerated men grimace, play tough, scream at the top of their lungs and keep cool. As in many Miike films, naturalistic performances co-exist in the frame with joyous overacting, sometimes with one man standing and talking seriously while his companion jumps around wildly.
The title is not ironic. For the men profiting behind bars, the jail becomes something of a paradise, safe from violent competitors and decked out with every black-market luxury they can have delivered to their private quarters. “If you pay, anything’s possible in here,” says Yoshida. “That’s why I work so hard,” he then adds. It’s only a matter of weeks before Hayasake is courted for partnership by two different con men and a yakuza. He's smart and innocent-looking, an ideal face illegality. A standard prison drama would depict his exploitation and eventual corruption, but this being (literally) such a sunny film, the business operations prove successful and Hayasake’s exploiters turn out to be good friends. Even the crime Hayasake has been accused of, which begins as the tense center of the film, eventually moves to the sidelines to become the subject of gags (one scene presents a montage of incompetent substitue lawyers), and is then forgotten altogether.
Of course, not all prisoners have it so good, and the film acknowledges the ugliness of prison life. The opening scenes, which verge on faux documentary, show inmates crammed into courtyards, buses and cells, sleeping a dozen to a room, erupting into riots. It could even be said that The Guys from Paradise is a social drama that begins in the real world and a traditional form and then proceeds to invent its own society and its own definition of dramatic structure. Miike's trademark disruptions begin as little doodles on the margins of the scene: the shot which introduces the three people visiting Hayasake in prison (his wife, his co-worker and his lawyer) is interrupted by gunshots in the background; during a fight in the cafeteria, one of Hayasake's cellmates (live-action cartoon Kenji Mizuhashi) behaves like he's in a mosh pit; Hayasake spies one of his cellmates jerking off as he watches a little girl take a bath.
By the second hour, they overtake the film. Subplots and throwaway scenes blot out Hayasake's struggle to clear his name; even the tentative love triangle between Hayasake, his wife and his co-worker is soon eclipsed by the love triangle between Hayasake, Yoshida and a beautiful inmate (Nene Otsuka) from the women's prison next door. Soon there are more detours than road, sometimes literally, like when the characters, driving at night in their jeepney, stop to help a deathly ill child. The tense scene, people scrambling around a dark room to find medical supplies, is itself upstaged by some slapstick business involving a generator that won't start, a nail-biter moment played for laughs. The ending of the film is one of the strangest in Miike's long career of strange endings: after a climactic gun fight, one character is elected president of the Philippines, while another comes to be worshipped as a living god by the people of a small village.
Just as the nonchalantly absurd premise (and the eventual discarding of said premise) could only be found in a Miike movie, the viscera and frankness are particular to the director, too. A prison is where dirty men are forced to shit and jerk off in public view. So, when a character in a Miike film needs to take a shit, Miike will show them shitting, with no pretensions. He has no taboos about what belongs in an image, and because of that he is the least perverse of all directors. If Miike's directing throughout the 2000s has a project (and it probably doesn't as far as he's concerned), it's to find a place in filmmaking for everything, and to allow movies to embrace every facet of life and performance, unencumbered. His tendency to disrupt action with contrary action is never a weakness: it is, in fact, what gives his films their depth, whether as comedy or drama or as something in between. Because Miike treats everything as equally un-outrageous, his films never have that histrionic quality that serves only to reinforce social codes (want to know the difference between Will Ferrell and Jerry Lewis? Lewis' juvenilia conquers acceptable behavior, and shows that it's ok to look stupid; Ferrell's ridiculousness only reminds you of why you should never yell in public, and lets upstanding members of society have a good laugh at the expense of an idiot).
The most appalling behavior, presented in good cheer, becomes the stuff of everyday comedy instead of third-world horror show. Exuberance, it seems, is irrepressible. It’s indicative of Miike’s cinema of unchallenged contradictions and tonal disconnects that The Guys from Paradise, in its darkest moments, should emphasize not liveliness over disgust, but the liveliness of the disgust of prison life.