Maybe it's a coincidence, maybe people have been spying on each other's work, but with Matsuyama's Liar Game: The Final Stage and Nakata's Incite Mill appearing almost simultaneously, Japan has two conceptually very similar films on offer. The direction takes both films different places, but it remains hard not to compare both films. That said, Liar Game is the clear winner for me, getting much more out of its initial concept.
The title already suggests that this film is part of a bigger franchise. In 2005 the Liar Game manga was serialized, shortly after a TV-show was made. This film serves pretty much as the conclusion of that series, but no worries, even without prior knowledge of the characters or concept the film is pretty easy to follow. The beginning of the film is crammed with all the information you need to know, so you won't feel left out on anything later on.
Liar Game is all about deception and outsmarting the other contestants. A small group of people has gathered into a game room to start the ultimate game of deceit, only one of them will win the 50 million yen jackpot. The downside? If you end the game with a debt, the debt becomes real and should be paid in full to the hosts afterwards. The game itself is quite complex and the explanation at the start may be a little too hasty to take everything in the first time around, but the finer mechanics are adequately explained during the course of the film. Don't be put off if you're a little lost these first 10 minutes, everything will make sense by the end of the film.
All characters get their five minutes of fame, but the main focus of the audience lies with Nao, the most naive and gullible contestant of the group. Rather than deceive, she tries to get everyone together, hoping to maximize the profit of each player. Needless to say, her attempts are in vein and not long after the first of thirteen rounds people are eying each other from all parts of the game room, trying to outsmart the rest of the group.
While Matsuyama goes through great lengths to elevate this film above the visual limitations of TV series material, he doesn't quite fully succeed. The film looks pretty great though: strong colors, nifty camera tricks and a visually lush setting, but the editing and buildups of scenes often resemble the short attention span and hasty climaxes found in TV series. It's a small detail but within the film's 2 hours running time it does start to show after a while.
The soundtrack is pretty decent, high octane stuff that keeps the blood pumping and lends the film the necessary excitement in the right places. It's not something that would ever work outside the film and it's not all that in your face either, but it does work on a more subconscious level, granting the film some extra excitement and a definite sense of tension.
As for the acting, Liar Game is clearly a manga/anime adaptation. Don't expect realistic characters or well-developed human emotions, each character is a clear stereotype that keeps very close to his or her intended purpose. If you can't stand the typical Japanese overacting this will definitely turn you off, but with people like Erika Toda, YosiYosi Arakawa and Toshihiro Wada you have a capable team of actors to get the job done.
Even though the concept of the film is pretty interesting, you might even go as far as to call it original, the film itself is quite predictable. Of course there are a couple of nice turns and twists along the way (some a little far-fetched but that is part of the game really), but the ending is pretty much fixed from the start and the film doesn't make much effort to hide it from its audience.
And even though you could easily cite some films that served as possible inspiration for Liar Game (Battle Royale, The Experiment, Saw - just to name a few), the mix still feels fresh and the setup is more than interesting enough for two hours of tense gaming fun. Once everyone is properly introduced and the players are trying to outsmart each other, the entertainment value stands solid and remains constant for the remainder of the film.
Liar Game has a couple of minor flaws and doesn't quite escape its TV background, but it has plenty of positive elements to erase these minor shortcomings. It's highly entertaining, shamelessly in your face, visually gratifying and overall satisfying. Neat concept, strong execution, barrels of fun. What more could you ask for?