Doing Time

Reviewed By Chris Parry
Posted 05/28/03 19:03:20

"If you think the worst prisons in the world are in America, try Japan…"
3 stars (Just Average)

SCREENED AT THE 2003 SEATTLE FILM FESTIVAL: Billed as a "serenely hilarious" comedy, Doing Time may well be one of the many Asian comedies that suffer in the translation with Western audiences. While it's certainly a film that manages to earn your ticket price and does offer a few moments of hilarity and introspection, you most definitely couldn't call it Adam Sandler-esque. While that's not a bad thing at all, a comedy needs to be funny consistently and Doing Time isn't that. What it is, is a bizarre look at the life of a man who goes to prison for owning a gun, and spends the next three years in a place that might not see you get gangraped in the shower, but it'll sure as hell leave you a changed man.

Cult manga author Hanawa Kazuichi was once nabbed by Johnny Law for owning a gun and was duly thrown in prison for a few years. While, in Alabama, owning your first gun is seen as an ideal way to start your seventh year of human existence, in Japan you only need to touch a gun and you’ll find yourself in the clink. And that’s where we find Hanawa (Tsutomu Yamazaki), in a story written by Kazuichi based on his own experiences in the joint.

When you think of prison systems (and I often do), you can pretty much say which countries are places that you wouldn’t want to be jailed in. In the US you’ll get sodomized by a large gentleman who only washes when he wants some sugar. In the UK, you’ll poop in a bucket in the corner. In Turkey you’ll sleep on cold rock and be beaten with anything available. In Iraq, you’d be Uday’s sextoy for a morning and be beaten on the soles of your feet for ‘not selling it’. And in Africa… well, at least you’d lose some weight. But Japan? Japanese prison would be eeeeeeeasy… right?

Not if you want to keep your sanity, boyo. In this particular prison, cellmates sleep five to a room and every second of their day is planned out for them. They wake, fanatically clean their room (even accusing each other of dropping more pubic hairs than others), fold their bedsheets again and again until they’re right, announce themselves by number for roll call, quick march to their place of work where they carve wooden tissue boxes, and have to ask permission for everything from going to the bathroom to picking up an eraser on the floor. Hold your little finger crooked and you get yelled at. Walk anywhere without doing a quick march, you’ll be yelled at. Break a rule, such as filling in someone else’s crossword puzzle, sneaking a choco-biscuit back to your cell, or ‘illegal communication’ (writing down the addresses of your cellmates) and you’ll be in solitary confinement for a few months – at least.

Hanawa endures this existence as best he can, keeping quiet and sticking to routine as a means of passing time. He takes great pleasure in every mundane job we do without thinking, and as time wears on he begins to lose any and all sense of who he once was. Unfortunately, so does the audience.

While Doing Time is fascinating stuff and shows that discipline can be far crueler than any lack of discipline we moan about in the western world, it also drags on far longer than it needs to. While director Yoichi Sai does a fine job of demonstrating the tedium of prison life - newsflash - the audience is being every bit as punished as the prisoners in the process. And just when you expect something to change and for there to be some potential point to things beyond what we realized in the first twenty minutes of the film, the damn thing ends.

A lot of films have done that these last few years – set up a big finish and then closed off before that finish could happen. In John Sayles’ Limbo there was a point to that – that being that the ending had actually happened ten minutes earlier and the audience found itself to merely be watching the wrong aspect of the story when they felt shortchanged. In Punch Drunk Love, a similar situation unfolded. In Adaptation too, Charlie Kaufman played on the same theme, but in Doing Time it seems things could have ended an hour earlier than they did with very little being lost on the audience.

For a comedy, I found myself far more bereaved than elated with Doing Time. For a drama, I didn’t find it very dramatic. For a character study, the characters are so drilled into conforming that there doesn’t seem to be any actual characters…

So what is this exactly…? In a word, interesting.

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