The Bird People in China (1998) Movie Review

Takashi 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.

Takashi Miike (director) / Masa Nakamura (screenplay), Makoto Shiina (novel)
CAST: Masahiro Motoki …. Wada
Renji Ishibashi …. Ujiie
Mako …. Shen

Buy The Bird People in China on DVD