Wednesday, August 15, 2012

In short: King's Game (2011)

Original title: Ousama gemu

A Japanese high school class is suddenly drawn into a peculiar, supernatural game. Someone or something calling himself The King (no Elvis impersonation implied), is sending everybody in class emails containing tasks one or two of the kids are supposed to fulfil, lest a punishment will be issued. At first the tasks are silly school kids stuff the class finds fun enough to do, but after a short warm-up phase, they begin to take on a nasty edge that is clearly meant to drive the kids apart. So it doesn't take long until the first of them do not want to play anymore, and do not fulfil their tasks.

As a punishment, the perpetrators are erased from existence, with all their physical belongings and all memories of them people outside the class had disappearing; only their classmates remember them.

The kids attempt to find loopholes in the King's orders, but generally only make the situation worse whatever they try. Attempts at finding out the identity of the King (who may or may not be part of the class) are made, but will anything come from them before the class has turned into the smallest one in Japan?

I was just praising director Norio Tsuruta's newest movie POV a few weeks ago, so I was pretty optimistic going into King's Game (by the way a movie that is, like all Japanese movies and anime of the last few years, based on a light novel; and no, I still haven't heard of heavy novel adaptations). The film's basic set-up sure carries promise too. While it does have the overt artificiality of all that rules-based fiction contemporary Japanese pop culture has been obsessed with for about a decade now, it also seems a good fit to explore the dark sides of the inner lives of high school kids, and the pains of growing up in a dramatic manner.

Unfortunately, King's Game's script rarely uses the opportunity to dig deep into the depths of its characters' psyches, and instead opts for stock character types (would you believe the intellectuals are wearing glasses and the preppie queen a tiara?) that never stray even a millimetre from the expected actions and reactions. This not only heavily impacts the film's emotional weight (as in, it has none), but also just makes the mystery at its core much less exciting. Why, after all, should an audience care about stock characters that never do anything to surprise? On the other hand, the acting quality is at a level that makes it doubtful the young actors would actually have been able to do anything deeper than the film asks of them; most of them are already quite stretching their abilities with stock characters and stock emotions.

Tsuruta's direction here is not strong enough to make up for the failures of his script. The film is well enough paced to never become boring, but there's little visual imagination or conscious mood-building on display, which comes as quite a surprise from a director whose POV showed many of these traits on an equally low budget and in an even more codified sub-genre.

As it stands, King's Game is an okay enough way to while away eighty minutes (I'm pretty thankful for it not being any longer), but it's also deeply disappointing when one thinks about the possibilities inherent in the material.

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