If Japan and Bali were assessed according to the GNH (Gross National Happiness) index, which would rank higher? The answer is a no-brainer in “Bali Big Brother,” a madcap motivational comedy based on Japanese tycoon Takatoshi Maruo’s success story on the Indonesian island. Japanese-Korean helmer Toshio Lee (“Detroit Metal City,” “Box!”) treats audiences to luxury pursuits in a tropical paradise, while imparting wisdom on the social responsibility of wealth, making the film a curious cross between “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” and a World Vision commercial. Obviously, those who already know about Maruo will be the core audience, but marketing may capitalize on the financial self-help angle to target Asian markets.
The film is adapted from Sho Kuroiwa’s bestseller “Degaseba daifugo” (“If You Work Abroad You Can Become a Tycoon”), about the success formulas of Maruo, an average salaryman from Osaka who emigrated to Bali and worked to become a property magnate, eventually owning some 30 companies. But it’s not so much his wealth as his out-of-the-box life philosophy and his philanthropic projects that’s made him a celebrity in Japan, attracting hundreds to join his package tours and attend his counseling sessions. The Japanese title translates as “The Gods Dwell in Bali,” a reference to the Balinese’s reverence for nature and their deep spirituality, making them believe the island is filled with deities. (Lee was reportedly draw to Maruo’s experiences because he’s spotted qualities among the Balinese that Japanese once possessed but have now lost.)
On a cliff overlooking the sapphire-blue ocean in Bali, Shoko (Machiko Ono) prepares to jump off as thoughts of her failed business in Japan and impending bankruptcy flash across her mind. To her rescue comes Ryu (Hiroshi Tamaki), a stud in a burnished suntan, but his reasons are anything but chivalrous: “You’ll make the real estate here depreciate.”
Ryu takes Shoko to a deluxe resort to recover. There, while exploring the pristine grounds, she’s distracted by a man (Shinichi Tsutumi) with an aging rocker haircut, whose fashion sense is as loud as his jabbering in Osaka dialect, and who is addressed by islanders as “Aniki” (slang for “brother” or “yakuza boss”). Just as she’s mentally formulating her opinion of him, he surprises her by throwing her own words back in her face: “It’s people like you who give Japanese a bad image abroad.” More shocks await Shoko in her dealings with the gangster lookalike, such as his palatial digs, aswarm with enough Indonesian cuties to rival Japanese girl band AKB48; his gaudy wardrobe of “Aniki”-emblazoned T-shirts; and his real-estate empire, which makes most of Bali off-limits for her suicide plans.
While trying to pick Aniki’s brains about business success, she also absorbs his personal philosophy, which offers more than pure capitalist can-do spirit. His rags-to-riches legend has all the ingredients of a juicy cock-and-bull story with a fairy-tale outcome, but the fact that it’s based on Maruo’s real-life experience, does send out the encouraging message that you reap what you sow. The screenplay by Hayashi Mori amuses by gradually revealing that neither people nor things are always what they seem, bringing to light the hidden goodwill behind all of Aniki’s seemingly outrageous behavior and schemes, or the real reason that Ryu, despite his beach-bum air, is in Bali to begin with.
The comedy is executed in very broad strokes, with no place for witty, sparkling repartee. Fortunately, rather than making Indonesians the butt of the jokes, the culture-clash humor is mainly between Aniki and Shoko. Seen through Shoko’s eyes, Aniki is a blustering bumpkin at first, but from another angle, he’s the one who calls out the flaws of the Japanese and what’s holding them back from success and happiness. It’s also through his role as a bridge between two cultures that he’s able to celebrate the people of Indonesia, with their warm, joyous nature and appreciative attitude (“experts at gratitude”), which other races can learn from. Ryu’s account of a life-changing incident in Bali also criticizes a certain type of First World condescension when it comes to performing charity.
The yarn indulges in more childish farce with the arrival of Sugita (singer-songwriter Naoto Inti Raymi in his acting debut), who looks like an extra in a B-movie and out-buffoons Aniki in every scene; a knockabout chase sequence that keeps one guessing for way too long whether Sugita is a loan shark, a hitman or someone creepier simply overdoes a trifling idea. The last half-hour goes into melodrama mode as Aniki’s dream of building a kindergarten and playground takes centerstage. Considering how much the film has emphasized his omnipotence until this point, it’s now strange that he can’t solve minor problems such as building permits. Despite a lot of hand-wringing, the finale doesn’t build up to a head of steam.
Tamaki (“Nodame Cantabile”) is delightfully snarky, proving he has the sort of comic chops that have rarely been evident in his repertoire of romances and serious dramas. In his shoutiest performance, Tsutumi (“Suspect X,” “Why Don’t You Play in Hell?”) hams it up wildly, but somehow pulls it off thanks to the larger-than-life personality of the real Aniki; much of his zany acting will be lost on those who don’t understand his Kansai dialect. Taking a holiday from more demanding drama (“Like Father, Like Son,” “The Mourning Forest”), Ono just coasts along with the farcical rhythms.
Shooting in quite dangerous locations with the extensive participation of an untrained Indonesian crew hardly seems to have affected the polished tech credits.