REVIEW: DVD Release: The Bird People In China

Film: The Bird People In China
Release date: 3rd October 2005
Certificate: 15
Running time: 118 mins
Director: Takashi Miike
Starring: Masahiro Motoki, Renji Ishibashi, Mako, Li Li Wang, Tomohiko Okuda
Genre: Adventure/Comedy/Drama/Fantasy
Studio: Siren
Format: DVD
Country: Japan

A change of tact for one of the most outlandish film makers Japan has to offer, who has become infamous to western audiences for extreme horror and crime shockers such as Audition and Ichi The Killer.

The story takes us along a journey with Mr Wada (Masahiro Motoki), our businessman, sent as a late replacement for a sick colleague on a trip to the mountains of China in search of a very rich vein of the precious jewel, Jade. Along for the ride is Mr Ujiie (Renji Ishibashi), a Yakuza gangster, whose boss has sent him to verify the jewel claim, their interest laying in the unpaid debts by Mr Wada's firm. Both are sold on the idea by their respective employers, on the promise of authentic Chinese cuisine.

From their first, unspoken meeting on a train, to their shared, diabolical van ride (wherein the passenger door falls off), it is clear that the gangster is unhappy to be on the trip. Their guide, Mr Shen (Mako), takes the entire trip in his stride, having made the journey countless times and seeing little to be concerned with, despite the impending storms and torrential rain.

As the three continue via converted tractor vans, rickety bridges and turtle powered rafts; they finally reach their destination and begin to swiftly form a bond with the villagers…

Takashi Miike has taken the opportunity with this feature to delve into the lighter side of Asian cinema (a little off the beaten track from his usual psychopath and sociopathic characters). If you are a fan or even a vague viewer of Japanese cinema, you won't have failed to catch a glimpse of this director’s aforementioned more recent films. The Bird People Of China, however, is the breakthrough 1998 film that made Miikes' progression possible.

The title of the film gives the impression that you might be entering a world of fantasy, and, in a way, that’s an accurate assumption. Wada and Ujiie are stranded, following their guide’s bout of amnesia, and, as such, are free to explore and live the lifestyles of the villagers. While enjoying this new found existence, they witness the children of the bird school breaking in their new ‘wings’, and discover the upright, tail end of a WWII aeroplane nose planted in a lake.

Mr Wada meets the teacher of the Bird School, Miss Si-chang (Li Li Wang), and spares little time in finding reason to be curious about her and the school, documenting her singing via a tape recorder. The men decide to query the little hamlet and investigate what keeps the inhabitants where they are, but also why they may be willing to give it all up so freely.

The cinematography tells the story as much as the script, not hard given the picturesque and startlingly colourful landscape - mountains that touch the clouds and valleys that travel for hundreds of miles litter this feature. Possibly the most endearing and entertaining image throughout the film is found when Mr Wada, holding a pink umbrella, comes across Mr Ujiie (not the best of friends, given a swift beating earlier in the film) mid bowel movement, and he is ordered to keep the rain off his head while he finishes.

Music and song are provided in the form of village woodwind instruments and the stylings of actress Li Li Wang, which further deepen the viewer’s isolation within this environment.

The underlining subject of seclusion and technological alienation is played out throughout the film, with little shown of the big bad world there yonder. It's the struggle between accepting your place in the world and carving a new path that tortures our characters most, trapped in an existence they aren’t fully understanding of, they find their new lives free of expectation and judgement.

The Bird People In China is a detailed and thoughtful film that crosses a wide variety of genres with real ease. Its stylized/iconic shots detract from any other world and fully immerse the viewer in a land of escape and idealism.

Performances from the two leads are deft, subtle and warming throughout – and it's hard not to appreciate a film with lines such as, “This is Yun Nan and my butt is sore. Now behind a thin wall a Yakuza is taking a shower. I must sleep with him in the same room.”

Takashi Miike, despite his obvious talents, provides only what is needed to a script which is laden with suggestion and clear joy. Reigning in his penchant for violence, he shows another facet to his filmmaking abilities, and perhaps delivers a career high. DWI

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