Film / Reviews

'Paradise Next': When the music is better than the story

by Mark Schilling

Contributing Writer

The lone, wandering gangster is as standard a figure in Japanese cinema as the lone, wandering samurai. Traditionally, both fought out of a self-imposed sense of duty and obligation.

In modern-day incarnations of these figures, such as the exiled-to-Taiwan hitman in Takashi Miike’s “Rainy Dog” (1997), the macho romanticism of older films may be alive and well, but there is often a grittier realism. Relentlessly pursued by his enemies, Miike’s hero is more like a hunted animal than a noble warrior.

Yoshihiro Hanno’s “Paradise Next” also has an on-the-run gangster hero and a Taiwan setting, but the resemblances to Miike’s genre classic end there. A composer who has worked with Jia Zhangke, Hou Hsiao-Hsien and other Asian auteurs, the Paris-based Hanno has created an eclectic score for his third film as a director, including an elegiac theme by friend and colleague Ryuichi Sakamoto that perfectly captures the film’s mood of evanescence, longing and regret.

Paradise Next (Paradaisu Nekusuto)
Rating
Run Time 100 mins.
Language JAPANESE, MANDARIN
Opens NOW SHOWING

If only Hanno’s treatment of Yu Wei-Yen’s original script did the same. Instead, the film is more about atmospherics and attitudinizing than compelling storytelling. And the sober realism of Miike’s film has been replaced by noirish theatrics that range from the smoke-wreathed affectless to the teary-eyed overblown.

That said, “Paradise Next” is gorgeous to look at, with Naoya Ikeda’s cinematography making Taiwan look like color-saturated postcards, though the steamy heat of the place is missing. In some scenes the characters seem to be traveling through a cooler clime — say, springtime France with palm trees.

That impression may come not only from Ikeda’s color scheme but also the film’s storyline, with two men attracted to the same woman, a la “Jules and Jim” (1962). One is the gangster, Shima (Etsushi Toyokawa), who fled Japan a year ago following the sudden death of a young woman, Shin Ru (Nikki Hsieh), he was serving as a bodyguard.

Another is Makino (Satoshi Tsumabuki) a smirking, insouciant punk who invites himself to sit at a table where Shima is slurping noodles and calls him familiarly by his name, though to Shima he is a total stranger. More disturbingly, Makino seems to know something about the incident that drove Shima to Taiwan, but won’t say what it is.

Then Kato (Akira Ohtaka), a yakuza boss who put Shima under the protection of a local gang lord (Michael Huang), shows up and orders Shima to kill Makino. A straightforward assignment, but Shima is not eager to carry it out, at least until he learns more about his target. Instead he and Makino drive to the mountainous Hualien region, where they meet the friendly, vivacious Xiao En (Nikki Hsieh), a double for the dead woman (who is in fact played by the same actress).

As this unlikely trio bonds, secrets begin spilling out and feelings that have been hidden emerge and erupt.

Both Toyokawa and Tsumabuki have been playing variations of their characters for years and neither delivers anything particularly new, though Tsumabuki brings a maturity and depth to his portrayal of Makino that comes as a welcome surprise after his frothy early scenes.

But I kept glancing away to the Instagram-ready landscapes and listening to the Taiwanese folk singers on the soundtrack whose soulful voices hinted at a better movie than the one I was watching. But this year’s best J-film soundtrack? “Paradise Next,” perhaps.