The Bird People in China
directed by Takashi Miike
(Sedic International, 1998)

This is a more relaxed entry from prolific Japanese director Takashi Miike. For those readers who are unfamiliar with his works, Miike is infamous for his violent Yakuza films, and for his twisted and bizarre sense of humor that would give the MPAA heart attacks. Fans of Asian cinema may know him for such titles as Ichi the Killer, Audition, Gozu and the cult Happiness of the Katakuris, which is a dark comedy/musical rendition of South Korea's The Quiet Family. He has directed just about every genre and has added a touch of originality to each one.

The Bird People in China is no exception and, having very little violence (except for a dream sequence), is one of his lighter titles.

Based on the novel by Makoto Shiina, it is a well-balanced film. It is at once beautiful and humorous. Other filmmakers would likely make it completely artsy, but Miike keeps everything a finely mixed potpourri of drama, comedy, adventure and contemporary fantasy. The locations shot are breathtakingly beautiful and add a nice backdrop to the story.

It is about a young workaholic businessman named Wada (Masahiro Motoki) who reluctantly covers for a co-worker to investigate an alleged Chinese jade deposit. What he doesn't know is, his firm owes money to the mob and they have sent a volatile older Yakuza, Ujiie (Renji Ishibashi), to collect payment in the form of jade. Joined by a bumbling guide (Mako Iwamatsu) they embark on a series of misadventures across China to the remote Yun Nan province.

The journey takes up a good portion of the first half of the movie, starting out fast-paced and slowing down through each increasingly archaic mode of transport. Bit by bit the modern world is stripped away from the two vastly different men and each handles it in his own way. The Yakuza goes explosively stir crazy but attempts to make the best of a bad situation by treating it like a holiday, and the salary man ignores the world around him and focuses on his papers (before they are taken away from him in a fierce storm).

When they finally arrive at the remote village they discover a group of children running around with wooden wings. They discover that in the village there is a legend that their ancestors came from the sky and were able to fly. The people in the village are trying to rediscover the art of flight through an ancient and esoteric manual that a villager's grandfather discovered.

Finding themselves for the time being stranded (their guide having lost his memory through a misadventure involving psychotropic mushrooms!) both Wada and Ujiie are forced to relax and let their guards down. It is almost a pleasure to watch the transformation that comes over the gangster. He finds himself, for the first time in his life, surrounded by true innocence and he becomes a happier man, entertains the children of the village and softens up to a human level. Wada on the other hand is the less adaptable of the two and doesn't come out of his shell until he becomes obsessed with translating the Scottish folk song "Annie Laurie" mysteriously sung by a village girl.

This film has been compared a lot to Local Hero but it stands on its own as a unique movie. While not completely perfect, I've found it to be one of the most pleasant movies I've seen this year. It serves as a reminder that explosive special effects, bloated budgets and (most ironically considering the director's reputation) blood and gore are not necessary to make a fulfilling movie.

by Stefan Abley
15 July 2006

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