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The Bird People In China

cast: Masahiro Motoki, Renji Ishibashi, Makoto 'Mako' Iwamatsu, Michiko Yoshise, and Li Li Wang
director: Takashi Miike
118 minutes (unrated) 1998
widescreen ratio 1.85:1
Artsmagic NTSC DVD Region 0 retail

RATING: 8/10
reviewed by Steven Hampton
You want sleazy porn scenes? Nothing of the sort here, guys. Expecting frequent bouts of extreme violence? Look elsewhere for that stuff, too. This is iconoclastic Japanese filmmaker Takashi Miike operating at full creative strength, as usual, but in certificate 'PG' mode. However, that's not to say this is safe, family fare...

The Bird People In China (aka: Chûgoku no chôjin) is like a fairy tale in contemporary mode; a poetical fable of undeniably affecting power. It visits the wondrous realm of magic realism to expose the flaws in modern society, and explore the hopes for a better life of the alienated individual. Diligent salaryman Wada (Masahiro Motoki, in a kind of zero to hero role) travels to a remote mountain region of China (where the locals have never heard of Chairman Mao) to investigate, and claim for his Japanese company, a newly discovered source of jade. His lengthy journey is dogged by seemingly insurmountable difficulties (the language barrier stymies even basic communication) and much mirthful farce (especially vehicular breakdown, a specialty of the poverty-stricken Chinese peasants). Wada finds an unexpected travelling companion in belligerent yakuza debt-collector Ujiie (Renji Ishibashi), and unhelpfully amnesiac local guide Shen (Makoto 'Mako' Iwamatsu - yes, that Mako!) somehow manages to get Wada and Ujiie to their destination without loss of life, or limb, but a flash-flood and wandering round unfamiliar landscapes (otherwise the scenery is breathtaking) ensures the marathon walkabout is highly eventful if not specifically dangerous.

After the film's travelogue section, the long promised hillside 'village' is found at last, stumbled upon almost entirely by accident, by Wada, slightly bewildered by a 'welcoming party' of a schoolchildren playing with their kite-like wings. While the jade business-claim story retreats into the background, Wada becomes fascinated (not romantically, though) with charming village girl, Si-chang (Li Li Wang), who is the granddaughter of a MIA British pilot. She amiably warbles a badly translated version of Scottish folk song Annie Laurie, which a spellbound Wada manages to capture on tape before the batteries on his recorder expire.

The fantastique aspects of this dramatic adventure film include the protagonists' quest (an almost Tolkienesque trek which feels like a condensed version of every 'fellowship' styled flick you've seen), a raft pulled upriver by a harnessed phalanx of giant turtles, and the enticing possibility of human-powered flight. Despite the mundane explanations of mere descendants of a lost wartime flyer (reportedly he was from India), it's really the marvellous 'dream' dimension of Bird People that holds intrigued viewers rapt for most of the movie's second hour. While ethically concerned Wada becomes a kind of secular 'apostle' for the downed and long-dead airman, and surviving 'girl from heaven' Si-chang, it's the grouchy and ultimately violent Ujiie who undergoes a more radical personality change.

As with Robert Altman's anarchic parody, Brewster McCloud (1970), perhaps the main attraction of Bird People is the potentially sensational idea of these wistful wing-flappers actually getting airborne, thereby turning comedy action into jaw-dropping wonder. Innocence replacing desire in the pursuit of personal freedom appears to be the key to success. If you don't mind the sometimes leisurely pacing, and welcome brief moments of visual élan instead of the vacuous spectacles that reduce so much Hollywood product to undemanding eye candy, this should be a very worthwhile night's entertainment.

DVD extras: exclusive filmed interview with director Miike, expert commentary track by Tom Mes (both hugely informative and enjoyable), background material on the production and filmmakers, anamorphic widescreen transfer with original Japanese Dolby digital 5.1 sound and optional English subtitles.
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