It's a bit different from most Takashi Miike films. It's a prison movie in the Philippines.
Firstly, that's an awesome setting for a movie. It's a rough, excitable world in which you've left civilisation and you're trapped with people who'd kill you for a thousand pesos. Your cellmates will include excitable men who shout in foreign languages and paedophiles who steal your wife's photo and masturbate on it. The toilets are unspeakable. Basically it's the end of everything you've ever known or loved, a lot like life after the apocalypse. However on the upside it also seems fairly easy-going, in which it's possible to get by if you avoid picking any fights and don't mind being treated like livestock. The prison staff are lazy and corrupt, not brutal. Money can buy you anything, including women and access to the outside world.
Some people even like it in there. Hence the movie's title, although it's a little more complicated than that (and not just with irony).
Anyway, our protagonist, Koji Kikkawa, arrives in a suit and tie, carrying a briefcase. My first thought was that someone had made a mistake. He's a businessman. He doesn't belong in this world. Is he a consultant hired by the government, or perhaps the new prison governor? No, not so. In fact a mistake hasn't been made at all, unless you count the minor question of guilt or innocence. Kikkawa was allegedly caught with a kilo of heroin, which in the Philippines can get you a death sentence. Whoops. Understandably he's unhappy about this, but he's also not too worried because he hasn't been convicted yet and he's assuming that because he didn't do it, the court will realise this and let him go. Such faith. He even doesn't listen when his legal advisor tells him that if he wants to be found innocent, he'll have to pay out money.
He's billeted with three other Japanese men. There's plenty of English and what I'm going to guess is Filipino spoken in the film too, but it's largely Japanese-speaking, with its main characters being this makeshift community of strangers in an alien land.
That's all good. I'd watch a film about that even if it wasn't directed by Takashi Miike. What he brings to the table for once isn't ultra-violence, because this isn't that kind of film. It's a bit more reflective and character-based than that, although that doesn't mean we don't still have drug deals, gangsters and murders. No, what I love about Miike's films is the way they don't feel like films. They're not predictable. Nobody's safe, not even the heroes. The plot's going to do whatever the hell it wants to do. You know the way some movies are so clearly put together from formula that you know what everyone's going to say and do in advance? Miike's the opposite of that, making about a thousand movies a year and yet keeping them fresh by (normally) being as raw and uncontrolled as he can with them.
This movie appears to have no artifice whatsoever. It feels as if Miike flew to the Philippines, sent his crew to prison and shot a movie there. The results aren't glossy. He shoots too fast and roughly for that. What they have instead is a sense of near-documentary realism, which is perhaps surprising from a director with Miike's reputation for being lurid and over-the-top.
The other thing this movie has is a strong theme. That's very Miike. It's about betrayal vs. loyalty, be it between cellmates, spouses or employers. Kikkawa works for a big company and has a wife on the outside, but he's being subtly cut loose just because he's in prison and facing an accusation. Trial? Who needs to wait for the trial? Similarly characters discuss marriage in terms of betrayal and being betrayed. That's a strong word, but it's what they use. Kikkawa has no love for the people he's being locked up with and would happily take their money and run off with it, but nonetheless he ends up finding a kind of brotherhood. There are people here who'd die for each other. (This is demonstrated.) The thematic strength of all this in the end I found moving and, in its way, beautiful.
So, is the film perfect? No. The downside of having a plot that feels as if it can go anywhere is that you end up with a movie that's slightly directionless. Halfway through I found myself looking at the clock. The film's never boring, but it's quite long and you'll need a bit of patience to make it through to the good stuff at the end. The script's strength is in its themes, not its plot construction.
Oh, and if you want to get picky there's a long scene with a corpse that's visibly breathing. What takes this from "goof" to "bizarre" though is that throughout the scene, Miike is effectively pointing a spotlight at it!
The acting's good, although I suspect the actors won't have found their jobs difficult. When you're trying to find your motivation to play a scene, there's nothing like really being in a tropical prison in the Philippines. Koji Kikkawa used to be a singer, but I won't hold that against him. The biggest name though is Tsutomu Yamazaki, who's had a career going from 1960s Akira Kurosawa movies to the 2008 winner of the Best Foreign Film Oscar, Departures.
This is a really interesting movie and it's a shame that there are easily a couple of dozen Takashi Miike films people are likely to want to watch before eventually getting to this one. It's a bit long, but that's not the worst crime in the world and it has a strong ending. In particular its themes are what's driving it. On top of that it's also laugh-out-loud funny on a couple of occasions, with my favourite being that insane death scene. You'll know the one. That's utterly Miike, that is.
I also liked the travelogue aspect, by the way. You know, just seeing a prison in the Philippines. The way a tropical storm can be thundering down and then suddenly stop as if a tap was turned off, for instance. I think I'm becoming a Miike fanboy, but even so I'm really pleased I watched this. Definitely recommended.