Our resident Takashi Miike expert, Judge Joel Pearce, may have found himself a new favorite.
"I've slept more than 10,000 times, but I've never dreamt of flying like a bird…"
I have been doing a number of reviews of Takashi Miike's films lately, and I still think he is one of the most varied and creative voices in contemporary film. Few of his movies, though, have had as much impact on me as The Bird People in China, and it may be my new favorite of his films. It is polished and beautiful, with an effective blend of Miike zaniness, thoughtful philosophical pondering, and touching characters. ArtsmagicDVD delivers once again on the release as well, making the whole package necessary viewing for film buffs.
Facts of the Case
Mr. Wada (Masahiro Motoki), a straight-laced young Japanese businessman, is sent in a colleagues' place to inspect a jade deposit in China. He is unenthusiastic about this assignment, especially upon his arrival in this strange land. He is soon "greeted" by Ujiie (Renji Ishibashi, Audition), a yakuza enforcer who has been sent along in order to ensure that the company is quick to repay old debts. These two men journey together deep into the mountains of China, led by an incompetent guide named Shen (Mako, Conan the Barbarian). After a long and difficult (and occasionally very funny) journey, they wind up in a small mountain village that changes their entire outlook on life and the world.
It's very hard to describe some films. The Bird People in China plays almost like a blend of Romancing the Stone and Apocalypse Now, combining a very funny fish-out-of-water/paired-with-an-enemy scenario with a powerful and eerie descent into madness. There is something else happening here as well, though; a gentle tale about our notions of progress and development. What have we sacrificed in order to have our modern conveniences? Can we ever get the simplicity of rural life back? Somehow, Miike fuses all of these things into a unique and valuable work.
The last few times that I reviewed one of Takashi Miike's films, I complained that when he shoots ten films a year, each seems less polished than it needs to be. The Bird People in China is finally an exception to that trend. While parts of it still have that fast-paced, manic feel that we all know and love, it is also is quite patient and thoughtful at times. Each of the scenes resonates with the rest of the film, and the script ponders a number of highly intelligent questions that it does not try to apply simple answers to. Whether or not it is Miike's best, I think this shows him at his most accomplished. The dream sequence that Ujiie has towards the end of the film is as vivid, kinetic and visceral as Dead or Alive and Happiness of the Katakuris. On the other hand, there are also many quiet moments here that match the control and simplicity that he accomplished through the first half of Audition. In other words, I think this represents the best of both worlds of Miike's work, which is high praise in my books.
The script, adapted from a novel by Makoto Shiina, is the reason that everything comes together so perfectly. At the start, we are introduced to Wada through his own narration, spoken into a tape recorder that he uses as a journal. He comes across as stoic and cautious, unwilling to discuss certain things that he considers inappropriate. It's a simple narration technique, but it works well, especially since we are cleverly shown images revealing what he is really thinking. This tells us a great deal—not only about Wada, but also about the society and situation that he comes from. He is part of a fast and busy world, and he seems to be feeling the loss of something that he has never known. Ujiie is as impulsive and blunt as Wada is cautious and logical, but they ultimately desire the same thing. Ujiie is haunted by something about his life, something that follows him in his dreams even to the most remote parts of a strange country. The journey through China is entertaining because they are both urban outsiders, but once they arrive at the village, it becomes clear that there is something in this other life that offers them a glimpse of what they both desire. The villagers, who may be able to fly, work so well as a metaphor because both Ujiie and Wada see life in the village as something that they not only have never experienced, but something they haven't even begun to imagine. This is the simple, beautiful life that they have longed for, and it allows these simple villagers to do things that neither of the Japanese characters could even fathom. The question is left to the end as to whether the villagers are truly able to fly or not, but at that point it doesn't even matter that much. The audience, too, has been swept away into a world of ancient legend where the simple possibility that the bird people could fly is somehow freeing. The locations that he found for the production are gorgeous, and they have been perfectly captured by the lush, patient cinematography. If any place in the world would allow people to fly, it would be this place; and I found myself hoping that it was true.
All of the actors live up to the quality of the script. Masahiro Motoki has a stoic demeanor that makes him a perfect everyman trapped in bizarre circumstances. His transition from being uncertain and trapped to leaping in and taking control at the end is steady and believable. Renji Ishibashi is even better as Ujiie, whose transition into madness reveals the kind of life that he has had with only a few brief glimpses into the past. It's hard to find actors that can pull off madness right, and he can now be added to that short list. Mako proves that he still has it, too, taking many of the laughs as the incompetent guide.
Once again, ArtsmagicDVD doesn't disappoint with the transfer. Although the source was clearly not in perfect shape, the anamorphic image is clear, with a good black level and accurate colors. I wish Japanese directors could get the budgets that Hollywood directors do, because having a great transfer of this from a cleaner source would have been really impressive. Just as good is the sound transfer. The 5.1 surround track was clearly mastered from a stereo track, but great care was taken to do more than just echo the front information in the rears. The subtitles are perfectly timed, have no errors, and are easy to follow.
There is also a good sampling of extra material on the disc. Once again, ArtsmagicDVD has included the original poster and cover art with translations. It's a nice feature, and shows how careful they have been to maintain the same tone in order to market the film here. They also include the lyrics to the song that is prevalent later in the film, giving a bit of cultural context for it. So many text-based features seem like a waste of time, but these actually have quite a bit of value. Of much greater value is the interview with Takashi Miike (wearing yet another pair of crazy sun glasses). He is always entertaining and pleasant to listen to, and the production of The Bird People in China was quite challenging from the sound of things. Few people could have made this film for the amount of money that Miike had, or in the time frame he was given.
There is also a commentary with Tom Mes, who makes a number of valuable comments on the film and its cultural context. Sometimes, it's better to have a critic recording a commentary track than someone who was involved with production, because the critic is still able to give us factual information about the film, but is far enough away from it that he understands what information a North American audience needs to know in order to fully understand the film. Mes obviously really knows his stuff, and his passion for the material shows.
Rarely have I seen films that have been both as funny, exciting, touching and thought provoking as The Bird People in China. We are fortunate to have it released here, and even more fortunate to get it in such an appealing DVD package. If you are a fan of Miike's work, you need to go buy this disc right now. Anyone else who is interested in meaningful films that are willing to both have fun and make strong societal statements will also find it to be a valuable addition to their collections.
The cast and crew of this delightful film are free to continue soaring.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary with Tom Mes
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