Those who know Japanese cult director Takashi Miike only through his shock and gore films – Ichi the Killer and Audition are both absolute classics of the genre – will be in for a surprise with The Bird People of China. Bird People stands as absolute proof that, although Miike will likely always be best known for his more extreme films, the man has a surprising degree of depth to him and is more than capable of turning out world class serious film.
Bird People stars Masahiro Motoki as Wada, a stereotypical young Japanese careerist. He’s focused, driven and determined to make it in the business world. Thus when one of his colleagues comes down ill and his firm needs a replacement to go on a fact finding mission to check the quality of a rumored deposit of jade in remote China, Wada gets the call. His directions are fairly simple – plane from Japan to China, train to a village – whose name he cannot pronounce – where he will be met by a guide, and then car, boat and foot travel up into the remote mountain village where the jade is supposed to be. All goes according to plan until just after Wada meets his guide, the bilingual Shen, and the exploration party is crashed by Ujiie – played by Miike regular Renji Ishibashi – a yakuza from a gangster clan owed money by Wada’s company who has been sent along to verify that the jade exists and that Wada’s company will be able to repay their debt. The trio makes their way deep into China’s mountains – so far removed from civilization that Shen reports there are people here who have never even heard of Chairman Mao – by a combination of truck, tractor, foot and finally a turtle powered raft until they finally reach the village and learn that, as well as jade, it is also home to a school trying to teach the village children to fly using wings hand made of rice paper and bamboo and an ancient, legendary flying manual that nobody fully understands.
Bird People of China is a visually stunning film. Miike has always had a good eye for composition and this film is one of the rare early Miike films which he was able to shoot on proper film stock rather than on video. Cinematographer Hideo Yamamoto, best known for his work on Takeshi Kitano’s Fireworks, has done a masterful job of composing and lighting his shots and is blessed by the simply stunning scenery that comes from shooting on location in these remote mountains. The film moves entirely away from the surreal violence that marks Miike’s signature work, instead playing out as equal parts odd couple buddy picture and metaphorical fairy tale. The physical journey away from civilization is obviously meant to stand as a symbol for Wada and Ujiie’s simultaneous spiritual journey as both are forced to confront the emptiness of their lives and both learn that there exists something of much higher value.
Bird People anticipates the current move into what I refer to as magical-realism, beating the likes of Lost in Translation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Last Life in the Universe and, now, Kim Ki Duk’s 3-Iron by several years. When fantastic elements are introduced it is done with such a light touch that the question is not “Am I watching a fantasy film?” but rather, “Are there really these magical things in the world around me that I’m missing by simply not paying close enough attention?” A surprisingly pure, innocent film – especially when you consider its creator – Bird People is also, without a doubt, my favorite Miike film. It is, in almost all respects, flawless. This is an overlooked classic, a film that should have established Miike internationally as a worthy serious director. Largely overlooked in theaters and the festival circuit Bird People is now getting a second chance on video.
1.37GB | 1h 58mn | 640×352 | avi