The Bird People In China (1998) artwork

The Bird People In China (1998)

8th July 2005

Wada, a Japanese salary man, is sent to survey a Chinese village for a strain of jade for his company. On the way he meets with Uiije, a Yakuza collector, who wants the money from the jade for his organisation.
Masahiro Motoki, Renji Ishibashi, Li Li Wang, Mako
Action/Adventure, Eastern Cinema, Fantasy
1 Hour 58 Minutes
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Wada is a Japanese Salaryman who is being sent, along with his trusty tape recorder and electronic dictionary, by his company on a job to survey the remote Chinese village Yun Nan high up in the mountains. With the villagers uncovering a large deposit of Jade the boss of the Japanese company is eager to get someone there before anyone else can lay claim to the valuable discovery. However, on the way to the village he meets up with a Yakuza collector named Ujjie who, after the Japanese business defaulted on a loan, wants the money from the jade for his organisation.

So travelling on a succession of progressively primitive vehicles, including a Chinese train, a decrepit van that is shedding parts at an alarming rate, to a raft towed by six giant sea turtles, Wada and the Yakuza make their way to the village accompanied by their guide Mr. Shen who is eager to get rich and bring electricity to his village. Upon their arrival they discover that the vein of Jade is bigger than their wildest dreams.

But they discover something much more precious in a fascinating blue-eyed Chinese girl who teaches children to fly and who sings a hypnotic melody over and over. As Wada search for the secrets at the heart of Yun Nan, the purpose of the quest changes. Shedding their old clothes, Wada and the Yakuza decide to change their lives forever and, transformed by the purity and beauty of the village, they must find a way to protect the village and it's people from the relentless progress which now threatens to destroy the village and its beliefs forever.

Given that Takashi Miike's film budgets tend to consist of a enough money for a camcorder and a few economy VHS tapes there isn't much scope for fancy effects or dazzling pictures. Still, The Bird People in China manages to provide a handful of CGI effects and a picture which is watchable, but far from perfect and I can only sum it up as being something similar to a late 1960's budget offering. Although there is a reasonable amount of detail, the picture is rather washed out and grainy, and given the amount of rich and lush scenery on offer, it's quite a shame. The transfer is also not the cleanest you're going to see with plenty of dust specks and other sorts of print damage.

The same budget restraints are also evident in the sound. Still, if you don't speak a word of Japanese then this is hardly going to be a problem as the subtitles will be the focal point of your attention. The 448 Kbs Dolby Digital soundtrack is hardly an involving one, but then again it hardly matters with a film such as this. Although claming to be a 5.1 soundtrack, the front stereo and rear surround channels are hardly ever used, whilst the dialogue and most other effects are focused and anchored in the centre speaker throughout. It's certainly not going to be a soundtrack to test your home cinema system.

The main menu is animated and scored whilst, unlike previous Artsmagic releases, the extras provided are a major disappointment. The usual amount of in-depth detail is still there, but it's all presented in a rather slapdash and hurried manner which detracts from the overall quality of the film. The now common set of Biographies/Filmographies are presented for the director and principle cast members whilst the Promotional Material section can only be classed as looking suspiciously like something that was hurriedly scanned in from a film festival press release. Equally bolted on are the verses to the Annie Laurie song which is the focal point of the film. Hardly inspirational, but it's certainly an interesting novelty feature.

The film and extras are rescued by the ever interesting 18 minute Interview with Taskashi Miike. As usual, Miike is seen wearing his trademark sunglasses whilst the interview, which is split into question and answer sections, is still presented without chapter stops. Miike's comments are interesting as he reveals details about the various problems of filming and how he went about adapting the screenplay from the original book. The film is also accompanied by a reasonably interesting full length Commentary with Tom Mes. Being an expert on Japanese cinema he has a lot to say, but it can hardly be classed as being relevant to the film in question. Never the less, fans of the Japanese film industry will find it quite interesting and worthy of at least a partial listen. Things are rounded off with the Original Theatrical Trailer and some previews for The Black Society Trilogy.

But what's this? A Takashi Miike film that is full of his usual comedy traits and the lack of gallons of blood and gore that so often accompany his offerings? With the occasional laugh out slapstick moment, such as the startled Mr. Ujiie witnessing the bus falling to pieces in front of his eyes, to the rather restrained bouts of violence, you'd be hard pressed to realise that this is indeed a Takashi Miike film.

As with Subu, The Bird People in China provides something special and goes someway to prove that Hollywood influences haven't completely destroyed the Japanese ability to create a delightful fable. It's also a film which forces you to pause and think for a moment. With the industrialisation of China and other countries gathering pace, and the massive destruction of wildlife habitat and villages that it brings, can the simple few bring a stop to the pace of progress and did anyone stop to ask whether they wanted it in the first place?

Some claim that The Bird People in China is Takashi Miike's greatest ever film and even possibly one of Japan's greatest ever offerings. I'd be hard pressed to argue against the first claim, but one thing is for sure, Takashi Miike no longer needs to resort to violence and shock tactics in order to make people sit and take notice of his work. You simply need to take a talented director, a remarkable script adapted from an even more remarkable piece of work by best selling author Makoto Shiina, and the audience will come to you. Highly recommended.

  • Exclusive Interview with Takashi Miike
  • Commentary by Tom Mes
  • Biographies/Filmographies
  • Promotional Material
  • Annie Laurie
  • Original Movie Trailer
  • Previews
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