The Guys From Paradise
Rating: * * * 1/2 Director: Takashi Miike Running time: 114 minutes Language: Japanese Now showing at Shibuya Cine Palace and other theaters

Takashi Miike may end up as the Seijun Suzuki of his generation. In the 1960s, Suzuki was a toiler on the Nikkatsu B-movie assembly line, grinding out formula gang films. Bored with his repetitive labors, he began to inject puckish, surrealistic touches into his work.

Koji Kikkawa in “The Guys From Paradise”

The culmination was his 1967 film “Branded to Kill,” whose hit-man hero botches a job because a butterfly lands on the scope of his sniper rifle, and whose femme fatale client decorates the rearview mirror of her sports car with a dead bird. The film got Suzuki fired from Nikkatsu and became a cult classic, endlessly revived and stolen from (Jim Jarmusch used the famous bullet-through-the-water-pipe shot in “Ghost Dog”).

Miike, who toiled for years as an assistant director of TV dramas and a director of straight-to-video genre schlock before making his feature debut in 1995, is, if anything, even wilder and harder-working than Suzuki. Having put himself on his own assembly line (he now turns out four films a year) Miike claims that he fuels his creativity by the adrenaline rush of his frantic pace.

But though that creativity is frequently on display, in moments of cool-dude glamour or black-comedy frenzy, Miike’s work is flamboyantly uneven. Whereas many young Japanese directors opt for the high-minded themes and meticulous unity of style that begets serious critical attention and festival prizes, Miike calls himself an entertainer and routinely violates the mood of his films with bits of wacky burlesque or grotesque imagery.

While older (or cinematically literate) viewers may recoil, younger ones recognize similar gestures from manga, anime or pop music — and see Miike as one of their own. He now has his own small but growing cult following, including many foreign devotees.

“The Guys From Paradise (Tengoku kara Kita Otokotachi),” whose “guys” are Japanese prisoners in a hellhole of a Philippine jail, is a standard Miike product, with a headlong energy, scruffy charm and blithe unconcern for convention — social, cinematic or otherwise. A dozen Japanese directors of his generation could have planned and shot certain scenes more coherently; few, however, would have dared to make the film at all.

Unlike the many Japanese indie films that are shot with and about like-minded types in the comfort of Dainippon, “The Guys From Paradise” is a careening ride into a tropical Other, where anything goes and nothing is certain. The entire movie was shot in the Philippines, using a real prison for a set and real prisoners as extras — the kind of hardship assignment that would have given most directors palpitations.

Miike, however, reveled in the dirt, disorder and freedom, and the film reflects that joy. I can fault it for everything from the cartoonish performances to the outlandish ending, but I left the theater in an up mood — and I can’t complain about that. The message? When you have nothing to lose, you have nothing to fear — not a bad thought to carry with you in an age of ruthless restructuring.

Kohei Hayasaka (Koji Kikkawa) is an elite salaryman busted for drug possession while on a business trip to the Philippines. Protesting his innocence, he is bused to a prison where chaos rules, but money talks. Among his fellow Japanese prisoners are a pedophile doctor, a cracked restaurant owner, a wild-man drug addict, a sexy bank embezzler (Nene Otsuka) and an elderly grifter (Tsutomu Yamazaki), who does business on the outside with the warden’s connivance — and is on the run from the yakuza.

The first half of the film is a picaresque account of Kohei’s coming to terms with his new situation. After his wife and company dump him, he starts to realize that his despised cellmates are his only real friends and that, though justice may go to the highest bidder in the Philippines, the society is open and tolerant in ways unimaginable in rule-ridden Japan.

In the second half, the plot rolls into high gear as Kohei, now working for the grifter and becoming ever more friendly with the embezzler, joins the other Japanese in a breakout that becomes an escape from the grifter’s tenacious yakuza pursuer.

Starring as Kohei, rock star and former seishun eiga (youth movie) sensation Kikkawa has a coiled power reminiscent of ’60s screen icon Akira Kobayashi, but his acting chops are embarrassingly rusty, a fact that Miike’s gonzo directing style does nothing to hide. There is enough to like in “The Guys From Paradise” to make up for this and most other annoyances, but if I were Miike’s producer I’d lock him in a hotel room with a box of Seijun Suzuki tapes before he makes his next film. The old boy may have taken audiences into alternative realities, but he never took them out of the movie — a directing basic that Miike ignores. Rock on, dude, but play in key.

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