Allegedly based on a number of true cases, The Guys From Paradise is a prison story set in the Phillipines against a background of corruption, drug trafficking and paedophilia. This being a Takashi Miike film however, the results are far from conventional. It's essentially a film of two parts: the first set in a prison named "Paradise" where a small community of Japanese prisoners led by veteran criminal Yoshida (Tsutomu Yamazaki) enjoy a life of relative freedom and privilege, the second the story of their exploits outside prison walls with police and a deranged yakuza on their trail.
Central figure is Kohei Hayakawa (Koji Kikkawa), a promising young corporate upstart, sent to Paradise prison on a false charge of possession of heroin. Arriving in a suit and carrying a suitcase of his belongings as he makes his way through the dirty, overpopulated concrete corridors, he assumes his lawyer will have no problem getting him out. When the message arrives that the only thing that will make him a free man is bribe money rather than evidence of his innocence, Kohei realises his old life of luxury is over and slowly surrenders to his fate, becoming increasingly close with the community of Japanese prisoners he was adopted into upon his arrival. The group is soon expanded with the inclusion of a female member from the neighbouring women's jail (played by Nene Otsuka), whose presence greatly attributes to Kohei's decision to leave his fiancée and devote his life to the illicit dealings of his convict compatriates, all of whom seem to have adopted to their more primitive surroundings as a means of survival.
Though somewhat overlong, The Guys From Paradise paints a lurid portrait of The Phillipines as a country awash with all manner of vice, symbolising a side of Asia which the civilised Japanese have lost touch with. Even though they hold a position of privilege, their suits and ties won't protect them from being swallowed up by this more savage society. Harking back to the theme of Miike's earlier festival hit The Bird People in China (Chugoku No Chojin, 1998), The Guys from Paradise expresses the feeling that Japan has had to pay for all its economic and social advancement with the loss of its Asian roots. But rather than simply rehash Bird People's stranger-in-a-strange-land premise, this film takes a step further and suggests that the only way to survive and - as the hilarious surprise dénouement proves - emerge victorious is to adapt and embrace those Asian roots, and to construct a synthesis with neighbouring cultures.
Despite a talky first half, the film emerges as quite a grabber, especially when the pace and the weirdness are turned up a few notches in trusted Miike fashion. There are good performances by Tsutomu Yamazaki, a veteran of stage and screen who played one of the kidnappers in Akira Kurosawa's High and Low (Tengoku To Jigoku, 1963), and by Kenichi Endo, who once again flips his lid with gusto, much like he did in Miike's other films of the same year: Family and Visitor Q. Amusing cameos are supplied by comedian Naoto Takenaka and Mitsuhiro Oikawa, who plays a comic variation on his character in the director's The City of Lost Souls (Hyoryu Gai, 2000), complete with ping pong bat.
In big contrast however, there is lead actor Koji Kikkawa. Another The City of Lost Souls alumnus - he played the trench coated killer - his performance here is embarrassingly bad in places and shows that the former singer has the greatest of troubling conveying subtlety in his expressions and emotions. His exaggerated mannerisms might be intentional, like the body language of a wide-eyed young man trapped in an unknown situation, but most of the time he trudges around in such a clumsy manner you'd swear he's performing in leg braces.
Still, with its exotic locations, typically warped supporting characters and strong dramatic drive, The Guys from Paradise is once again a highly rewarding cinematic experience courtesy of the uniquely gifted Takashi Miike.