akashi Miike is best known for chaotic films of
extreme violence and hyper kinetic camera work such as "Ichi
the Killer" and "Dead or Alive". However, given that he
regularly churns out several films a year, and that Western audiences are
generally exposed only to his more sensationalistic efforts, it shouldn't be
all that surprising that there is more to the man and his talents than many
may be aware.
Based on a novel by Makoto
Shiina, "The Bird People in China" is a very different film from
Miike. There is little violence, no fast editing, and no incoherent plot
involving the nominal hero mutating into some kind of giant penis monster.
Instead, the film is thoughtful, measured, and at times achingly beautiful,
standing out as one of the director's greatest works. It may disappoint some
looking for another dose of the crazed excess they have come to demand from
Miike, or conversely those viewers who are put off by the mere mention of
his name, because "Bird People" is a delightful and inspiring film
that deserves to be watched and enjoyed on its own merits.
The film follows Wada (Masahiro Motoki, "Gonin"),
a Japanese businessman on a trip for his company to investigate a possible
seam of valuable jade near a village on a remote mountain in China.
Accompanying him is Ujiie (Renji Ishibashi, of "Gozu" and a
variety of other Miike films), an aging yakuza who has been charged with
making sure that his gang gets their share of the find. They make their
journey using a variety of decaying vehicles, led by a rather odd Chinese
guide named Shen (Mako).
But after an incident involving hallucinogenic
toadstools, the trio find themselves lost and with no idea how to get to
their destination. As they travel further into the mist-shrouded
mountains, they encounter a strange local legend about 'bird people' who
are taught to fly, and who appears to have links to ancient Japanese
culture. After they finally reach the village they find themselves
stranded in this beautiful, mysterious region, and begin to investigate
the myth, forgetting more and more about the outside world as they
discover more about themselves.
"The Bird People in China" is a thoughtful
film that focuses mainly on the characters' relationships not only with
each other, but also more importantly with nature and traditional culture.
Miike raises many interesting questions about the advances of modern
civilization and the effects it can have on small, untouched outposts such
as the film's village. What is most interesting is that this is not
mishandled with simple eco-ranting or pontifications about the awful
modern world. Instead, Miike asks some far reaching questions, analyzing
the affect of the village and mountains on the two visitors.
The development of the characters' relationships with
each other and their surroundings is subtle and believable, and recalls
Miike's "Dead or Alive 2", perhaps unsurprisingly, as both films
were written by Masa Nakamura. Even more so than in that film, this gentle
exploration is quite at odds with what would be expected from the
director, and results in something that is thought-provoking, touching and
ultimately life-affirming in a way that most films are not.
Miike's direction is excellent. Far removed from his
trademark gimmickry, he makes the best possible use of the stunning
Chinese mountain scenery, with its lush green forests, rain swept valleys,
and mist covered mountains providing one of the most beautiful film
backdrops of recent memory. The film is rich with symbolism and shows a
mature composition and style that cements Miike's reputation as one of the
best Japanese directors, albeit one of the most unpredictable.
Although the film is slowly paced and contains no
action, there are some flashes of Miike's style, generally in the form of
some oddball humor and odd imagery. These scenes are nicely woven into the
rest of the film, and thankfully never detract from its overall feel. The
ending of the film, in particular the final shot, is one of the most
memorable I have ever seen, and packs a punch that fills the viewer with
awe and longing.
"The Bird People in China" is definitely
not what the director's fans, or indeed his detractors, would expect. It
explores the relationships of man not only with nature, but also with
himself, and does so in an evenhanded and mature fashion that fascinates
and leaves the viewer with a strong desire to experience the mysteries of
our vast world.