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Joker Game Escape – Review

by Miguel Douglas

@isugoi

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The concept of the “Death Game” genre within Japanese cinema is certainly one that has produced some of the most memorable film experiences in roughly the last decade. Films such as Kinji Fukasaku’s Battle Royale (2000) have led the way into popularizing the genre and making it a considerable and controversial force within the medium as a whole. But this popularization has also led to the genre being somewhat saturated with a multitude of films that do not necessarily attempt to be original in any fashion, instead relying on the familiar tropes of the genre to pull them through. While Takafumi Watanabe’s 2012 film Joker Game was quite similar in this approach, here we have its sequel, Joker Game Escape, a film working as the directorial debut for newcomer Shintaro Ashzuka. But while the first film was suspenseful despite having technical setbacks, Joker Game Escape is a film that, although technically superior, lacks much of what made the first film an engaging experience regardless of its flaws.

Set within a mere seven days after the first film, Joker Game Escape follows seven girls who are gathered at a correctional institution and must participate in what is known as the “Escape Game of Death”. They awake locked in a room, learning that they must slowly uncover clues and cooperate with one another in order to escape. As they participate in the game, personal conflicts slowly arise as petty grievances and past disputes enter the picture. If this all sounds rather familiar, it’s because, quite frankly, it simply is, with the premise of film being more akin to that of the infamous American film franchise Saw rather than being a complementary sequel to the previous film.

It would appear that Joker Game Escape is attempting to expand the universe which was laid out through the foundation of the first film, but by doing so it simply mimics other films who have done this type of narrative treatment before – and certainly handled the material much better. While Joker Game was rather silly in what in its premise and execution, it at least elicited an air of mystery surrounding the true purpose and roots of the game and projected a lingering sense of ambiguousness as to the surviving characters fates as the credits rolled. Here the film plainly lays out what the game is and the – not surprisingly – governmental forces that promote its use on students. The mystery of the first film is unfortunately removed as we learn how and why these death games are used and why students must unwillingly partake in them, appearing more like a homage to Battle Royale than wanting to be imaginative in how its explores its narrative.

But the film also never really attempts to be innovative until literally its last half where revelations are suddenly thrown into the mix that seem all too unlikely and simply a ruse to add a twist at the end. This would have worked out much better if hints were littered throughout the film as to what their intentions were to certain characters, but it just comes off as rather ridiculous compared to their prior actions within the film. The majority of the film is mostly directed toward the girls and their conflicted interactions with one another, which is properly done – and expected in these sort of films – but the rather unsolicited responses by some of them in an attempt to establish a sense of excitement just falls flat. Unlike the first film, where the uncertainty surrounding who would lose the deadly version of the card game “Old Maid” and subsequently die, is sorely missed here, instead with Joker Game Escape coming across as more of an under complicated murder mystery than a suspenseful thriller.

From the technical point of view though, the film is vastly superior in quality than its predecessor. While Joker Game was much better in developing tension amongst the students and showing the dire consequences of their actions, the look of the film was rather lackluster. Cheap effects, awkward performances, and sloppy directing choices hindered much of the potential the film had, in turn producing a viewing experience that would have overall succeeded if it simply had a larger budget to work with. Joker Game Escape at least attempts to correct that aspect of the franchise, with Ashzuka capturing the look and feel of the characters and their surrounding environment with an astute measurement. We sense the cold and desolate isolation that these characters feel as they attempt to solve the riddles and resolve their terrifying predicament, with the a majority of the film taking place within one location. If this was simply an attempt to remedy the lack of budget, it does a significant job in doing so and is steps ahead of what the previous film offered.

Joker Game Escape is really a missed opportunity more so than anything. While it does raise its technical qualities far above that of the previous film, it simply loses its grounding as a series that could have lived up to the appreciable potential established by its predecessor. Much of the secrecy of the first film is disappointingly exposed here and it all comes off as simply pandering to the tired tropes of a genre that, although certainly interesting, can lead some films down a rather unimaginative path as elements are rehashed for the sake of remaining safe. This is the case with Joker Game Escape, a film that had considerable potential going in but sadly befalls towards not establishing itself as film willing to continue the momentum established through its prior, significantly more audacious work.

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Author: Miguel Douglas

As an avid viewer of both Japanese animation and cinema for more than a decade now, Miguel is primarily concerned with establishing a critical look into both mediums as legitimate forms of artistic, cultural, and societal understanding. Never one to simply look at a film or series based solely on superficiality, Miguel has dedicated himself towards bringing awareness to Asian entertainment and its various facets.

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