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Wednesday, Nov. 12, 2003

The twisted games screenwriters play


Rating: * * * * (out of 5)
Director: Satoshi Isaka
Running time: 145 minutes
Language: Japanese
Currently showing
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Hollywood thrillers have long aspired to be cinematic roller coasters, with car chases, explosions and firefights supplying the speed, dips and twists. But films like "Se7en," "The Sixth Sense" and "Memento" have found another way to churn audiences' insides -- with stories that not only wrench this way and that, but flip 360 degrees several times before the fadeout.

News photo
Yukie Nakama and Naohito Fujiki in "G@me"

Some find this sort of ride exhilarating, others headache-inducing -- or simply gimmicky. But Japanese producers have taken notice, especially of the sterling box-office receipts; "G@me" is a result. It is, however, not a reworking of a Hollywood formula, but based on Keigo Higashino's best-selling novel "Gemu no Na wa Yukai (Kidnapping Is the Name of the Game)." Was Higashino himself channeling "Se7en" director David Fincher? No matter -- the film has "Hollywood remake" written all over it.

At the same time, "G@me" has sharp, interesting things to say about the way Japanese companies often really work -- not as the harmonious, if conformist, business juggernauts once beloved by foreign management gurus, but very human institutions in which strong egos clash and jealousy, envy and, yes, revenge run rife.

Satoshi Isaka is the ideal director for this material. His debut, 1996's "Focus," was a brilliantly dark essay on media manipulation in which the exploited geek hero violently turned the tables on his exploiters. Isaka also proved his facility with the quasicomic thriller in 2001's "Doubles," in which two bickering thieves who find themselves trapped in an elevator must con their way out.

"G@me" combines several of the best elements of both these films, together with a love story that is uncommonly clear-eyed about the importance of trust -- or betrayal thereof. It's too twisty by half -- take an aspirin before seeing it if your head's likely to start throbbing after too many narrative loop-the-loops. It is also one of the rare Japanese films that respects the audience's intelligence, while delivering the expected package of suspense and romance.

The film's primary gamester is Shunsuke Sakuma (Naohito Fujiki), a young advertising executive whose career stock is skyrocketing. His plan for a new theme park -- to be built by a beer company that is his agency's big client -- promises to bring in billions. Then the company's vice president, Katsutoshi Katsuragi (Ryo Ishibashi), brutally kills the plan and humiliates Sakuma in front of his peers.

Sakuma suggests a new plan, but his goateed boss (Ryudo Uzaki) takes him off the account and gives it to a smarmy rival. Once a cocky winner at the corporate game, Sakuma has now been branded a loser.

Seething, he goes for a midnight walk in front of Katsuragi's house -- and spies a young woman jumping over the wall around it. The escapee turns out to be Juri Katsuragi (Yukie Nakama), the illegitimate daughter of the VP's mistress, who is fed up being bossed by her legitimate half-sister and angry at her father for not taking her side.

These two meet, size each other up -- and Juri decides that Sakuma might have his uses. "I want you to kidnap me," she tells him. He agrees -- and sets the ransom at 300 million yen. Then he sends a note to Katsuragi using an untraceable e-mail address. The game has begun.

With two smart gamesters in charge, the kidnapping goes according to plan. Juri, though, is a spoiled brat, who expects Sakuma to bend to her every whim. But, being made of sterner stuff than the other men in her life, he refuses to play that particular game. Still, she has her charming side -- and he has a healthy libido. The sex that follows has its moments of tenderness, but love is a different matter altogether.

Here the Hollywood formula would call for a quarrel, a parting -- and a final kiss-and-make-up, while saying goodbye to the ill-gotten gains. "G@me" not only turns this formula on its head, but makes it do somersaults. Audiences might find it hard to keep up, but through it all the two principals, as well as their opponent Katsuragi, retain an internal consistency. All are gamesters to the core -- and all pay a price for it, win, lose or draw. Instead of a trumped-up happy ending, the film plays it straight to the closing credits.

Stars Fujiki and Nakama are hot TV talents, but both can play characters, not merely their beautiful selves. Fujiki conveys the anger and ambition burning deep and hard -- a certain bruised look never quite leaves his face. Nakama may come across as another self-involved ditz, but later deftly drops the mask to reveal the trickster beneath. As she did in her hit TV series and film "Trick," she gives the proceedings a sexy zing and comic lift, while bamboozling the men with her huge, innocent-looking eyes.

Too bad there aren't any Japanese producers out there doing remakes of old Hollywood movies. Nakama would be perfect in Barbara Stanwyck's role in "The Lady Eve." Great conwomen are forever.

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