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Wednesday, July 31, 2002

Not quite ready for the big league

Play Ball

Rating: * *
Director: Makkoi Saito
Running time: 105 minutes
Language: Japanese
Opens Aug. 3

Japanese directors of the small screen have been moving to the big screen in larger numbers than ever. Producers feel, with justification, that a director who made his bones with a hit TV show is more in tune with the zeitgeist than one who went to the right film school, admires the right auteurs -- and moves the camera once every 10 minutes. The former at least tries to entertain, while the latter is usually more skilled at hustling film-festival invitations than attracting paying customers (or keeping them awake).

News photo
Shunsuke Matsuoka and Gori in "Play Ball"

There is, however, one problem with the industry-outsiders-make-better-filmmakers theory: Outsiders are constantly disproving it by making films that are music videos, commercials or TV dramas writ large. Even the better ones tend to be more interested in clever visuals than in working with actors, telling a story and the other boring basic stuff directors used to learn apprenticing under their seniors for a decade or so.

The latest to make the small-to-big-screen leap is Makkoi Saito, a director of such popular late-night TV shows as "Garage Cinema Paradise," "Kyojin Chudoku (Giants' Addiction)," "Kiseki Club (Miracle Club)" and "Watanabe Kenritsu Shogun Gakuen (Watanabe Prefectural Comedy Army School)." As these credits indicate, Saito is considered a funny fellow and his first feature, "Play Ball," is a comedy.

But though Saito has evidently been woodshedding with films by Takeshi Kitano and Takashi Miike -- two of the hottest Japanese directors of the moment -- he is still making a laff riot for the late-night TV crowd, whom he hopes will find its flatfooted pacing and clumsy staging a hoot of the "we're so bad, we're funny" variety. Sometimes he's right, yes -- but if this crowd can get much the same thing by punching the remote, why should it buy a movie ticket?

One reason is the talent on display, notably Gori of the manzai duo Garage Sale, who plays a fugitive on the lam in Manila. Unlike most Japanese TV comics, who try to get by on mugging when they find themselves in a film, Gori shows signs of knowing how to act. There is also an amusing performance by Atsushi Okuno as a nerdy salaryman and a less amusing, but tolerable turn by Shunsuke Matsuoka as Gori's sex-obsessed sidekick. This trio occasionally develops comic momentum, but Saito has only a patchy idea of how to turn their better bits into a movie.

Also, he seems to think it sidesplittingly funny that the film's Japanese heroes scam and hustle working people from one of the poorest countries in Asia. But when these clowns swiped bread from a food-stall lady or carjacked a jeepney, I couldn't see the joke -- just the too-common Japanese arrogance toward other Asians in general and Filipinos in particular.

This sort of cluelessness, however, is offset by the heroes' unfaked affection for certain of the locals (not all female, either) and their anger at the Ugly Japanese they encounter, who are racists and proud of it. By comparison, they are decent sorts, even if they are missing beads from their abacus.

The story shifts back and forth in time, but centers on Riki (Gori), who killed a woman in a stupid sex game and fled to Manila. Minus money or connections, he hooks up with Koji (Matsuoka), a hustler in the midst of a hot and heavy affair with a bar hostess. They run scams with varying degrees of success but barely make enough to break even. (Well, they are in Manila, not Las Vegas). Riki shows he has a good heart by befriending a young boy who loves baseball -- Riki's own passion -- but has only a mangled ball to play with. Riki gives him a wad of pesos and tells him to buy baseball gear (a gesture reminiscent of the Japanese bureaucracy's approach to foreign aid), but neighborhood bullies soon relieve the boy of his new prizes. Riki also makes friends with a lovely Filipina who gives him another reason to stay in the country, perhaps permanently.

Then, while hanging out in a hostess bar catering to Japanese, Riki and Koji encounter a straight-arrow shacho (company president) who looks to be the ideal prey -- until they find out he is another criminal, of the corporate variety. The gang gets its third member, whose one concession to his new life is to loosen his necktie.

These Three Stooges blow the shacho's stash on a club that allows patrons to indulge in the untypical Filipino fantasy of groping sailor-suited schoolgirls on a commuter train. When that fails, they steal a jeepney (as well as the tin roof of the shed it is chained to) but soon sail it off the road, taking a few passengers and pedestrians with them. (The fate of the latter, who are stuck to the hood and grill like so many bugs, is passed over). Finally, Riki runs into an old kohai (junior) from his high-school baseball team -- a bald giant of a gangster (Kengo) who is in town to take care of business, violently if necessary. The plot, what there is of it, moves into high gear.

The humor is mostly of the Takeshi Kitano school: pawky, deadpan and black. One running gag involves the aforementioned food-stall lady, a fat, phlegmatic sort who develops a bizarre fascination with the doings of Riki and the gang. Another revolves around the tasting of illicit white powder, which is really tasty. Gangsters dipping and licking their fingers like kids around a bowl of icing sounds funny enough, but Saito can't help overdoing it. He even throws in CG animation, Miike-style, of a winged brain that reveals Riki's fantasies of his sweetie in bed, muttering sexy come-ons in Japanese. Instead of blowing his budget on this sort of visual gimmickry, he should have invested more time and money in script rewrites -- and getting to know the people he uses as windshield ornaments.

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