The Bird People in China Review
The Bird People in China may not have been the first gentle, understated drama Takashi Miike made, but it was undoubtedly the most respected at that point in his career. Capturing the hearts of audiences in Japan and abroad, it was instantly viewed as a turning point for the director away from the V-cinema Yakuza films that made up the bulk of his filmography. After this, the sky was the limit for Miike and he would follow it up with his first batch of commercial features that cemented his status as a major player within the Japanese film industry.
In an extremely remote part of the Yun Nan province mountainside, the members of a small village have discovered a deep Jade vein that promises to bring untold riches to the region. Japanese Salaryman, Wada (Masahiro Motoki) is working for the Jewellers that have first claim on this vein and with no time to properly prepare he is whisked off to the Mainland. Here a local guide named Shen (Mako) is set to lead him into the mountains to investigate the extent of the treasure. However, before they can depart Wada is accosted by an elderly Yakuza named Yuji (Renji Ishibashi). It seems Wada’s company borrowed money from a powerful Yakuza family and quickly fell behind in their payments. To put things right they offered the Yakuza a cut in their Jade vein claim, but later tried to persuade the gangsters that the claim wasn’t as rich as they first thought. Needless to say, the cynical Yakuza are not fooled easily and poor old Yujie has been ordered to accompany Wada on his little mountain excursion to verify the extent of the claim. With an uneasy alliance formed between these three men they set off on the perilous trip into the heart of the countryside. At first the city men are ignorant to the startling scenery they’re traversing, but little by little they become more receptive to the world around them and at the end of their journey, the men uncover a community that will change their lives forever.
If the plethora of critical appraisals on the cover don’t give you high enough expectations from this film, then allow me to reiterate some of the plaudits: The Bird People in China truly is an evocative, magical film. The title refers to an ancient legend that bird people once soared the skies with the aid of large mechanical wings. These men left behind a manual on how to construct said wings but it was lost for centuries, finally being discovered a few decades prior to the start of this story by a village elder - who promptly resurrected the bird people’s teachings within his community. As utterly fantastical as this may sound though, the film remains anchored in pure expressionistic realism, with the villagers’ embrace of these antiquated beliefs proving to be more a by-product of the peaceful idyll within their community. Free from the needless responsibilities and myriad distractions that take up modern society, their appreciation of life and nature is fundamental enough to incorporate grandiose hopes and dreams. Later on in the film Wada and Co. bump into a Japanese tourist who has been combing the area for clues on this legend. It seems etchings of the bird people have been found right across Japan and that Yun Nan is rumoured to be the birthplace of Japanese culture – in other words the film is more a tale of self-discovery rather than new. The Japanese men are reluctantly embarking on a journey into their own cultural roots and the change it evokes within them is truly heart-warming, resonating beautifully by the deliberate pace.
Not once does the story feel rushed nor does it lag throughout the near two-hour runtime. The pace and tone is intricately set to flesh out some of finer nuances in the story. The first half of the movie is rather light-hearted, with plenty of comedy to ensure that the time flies by as we’re introduced to the major players bit by bit. In a series of transportation gags we see Wada arrive in China by plane, then taking a train to Yun Nan. Completely disorientated from the stillness around him, he meets up with the local guide Shen - whose easy-going nature provides many comedic moments throughout the film. When they bump into Yujie the triangle of unlikely adventurers is complete. The relationship between Yujie and Wada is one of the most important aspects of Bird People in China and although flashbacks show they’re in exactly the same boat - having been ordered to China against their will, their alliance is anything but easy. The bullying Yakuza quickly establishes authority over the subordinate Salaryman and the animosity between the two is used to hilarious effect throughout their initial encounters with the Chinese terrain. The three men start their journey into the heart of Yun Nan territory in a rundown Japanese van, driven by a rather insane old man who doesn’t even blink when the vehicle starts falling down around them. After this van inevitably dies they switch to an auto-rickshaw until they run out of road to travel on and are left with a mountain to climb – literally! If that wasn’t gruelling enough, they hit the harsh side of nature head on with a ferocious thunderstorm destroying the business documents and spare clothing Wada was carrying. Bruised and shell-shocked from the storm, they are left to rely on one last form of transport before reaching the village – an utterly absurd, turtle-powered raft! This may be very amusing, but the analogy is clear. As the men get closer and closer to their destination they are being stripped bare of all the convenience of home and entering a world that’s becoming more primitive, more alien, with each new step and brimming with more surprises than they could possibly imagine.
When Wada and Yujie finally reach the village the pace of the film intentionally slows down considerably. The languid manner in which the rest of the story unfurls perfectly accentuates the difference between the calm utopia of this remote village and the busy “civilised” streets of Tokyo. But story doesn’t begin to wane; if anything proceedings become more interesting because it’s at this point that the differences between our Japanese protagonists truly come to the fore. Up until now there has been a tangible sense of each character’s lack of self-worth and isolation within their wildly different worlds back home. Both realise they have completely lost control over their own lives, yet when they’re confronted with the gentle idealism of this mountain community they react in subtly divergent ways. Yujie may at first seem like a stereotypical Yakuza thug, but he is clearly haunted by the realisation his criminal lifestyle will catch up with him sooner or later. He may not have wanted any part in this Chinese excursion, but he is truly fascinated by the people and culture surrounding him, snapping away with his camera throughout the journey. Wada on the other hand is a stereotypical elite Salaryman. Obsessed with personal appearance and completely focussed on the job at hand he keeps his head in his books throughout most of the journey, refusing to acknowledge the world around him. When the storm rips these books away, he has no choice but to stop and smell the roses – but he doesn’t give them a thorough sniff, maintaining an emotional distance well into his stay in the village. This is not the case for Yujie, who immediately embraces the villager’s lifestyle, immersing himself fully in the simple joys of their everyday life. As Wada investigates the Jade vein with some of the locals, the aging Yakuza stays back to engage in trivial pursuits and play with the children. His real self has finally risen to the surface to reveal a man who is not boorish and cruel at all, but gentle and playful.
Meanwhile Wada continues to be a tougher nut to crack and doesn’t drop his obsession with the job at hand until he starts to interact with the mysterious, blue-eyed village teacher, Yen. Not only does the colour of her eyes hint at her unique ancestry in such a remote part of the world, but Wada also hears her singing the traditional Scottish Folk song: “Annie Laurie”. Stunned that he recognises the tune, the Salaryman decides to take a crack at translating the English verse using the last technical items he has at his disposable – an electronic English translator and a tape recorder. It’s the turning point for his character because he would never have stopped to embark on such a trivial pursuit before, but now he’s so enraptured by the emotion in this girl’s singing that he completely forgets his business with the Jade vein and his life back at home. However, it’s not a complete immersion in the culture of these people; he’s still relying on the comfort of technology. By-products of the commercialism that’s permeated deeper throughout Japan than most nations across the globe - let alone Asia. It’s a country obsessed with financial and personal success at the expense of almost complete cultural isolation from its Chinese ancestors. The fact this village teaches it’s children how to fly is a striking contrast to the high-pressure Japanese school system, which has been the butt of some scathing criticism in films like Battle Royale and All About Lily Chou-Chou. Still, as highly regarded as this traditional way of life is, it’s clear that a degree of modernisation is inevitable – perhaps even necessary, now that the Jade vein has been discovered. Certainly the current generation in the village are eager to improve the financial prosperity and technical advancements their new business ties will bring. Wada seems adrift like flotsam within the currents of all these contrasting ideologies, unable to just extend his hands and crawl his way to shore.
Looking back through Miike’s films as a whole you can clearly see the recurring motif of a group of outcasts who are dreaming of a life somewhere, anywhere away from their current location. When they take the bull by the horns and proactively seek this new life they inevitably meet with disaster or disappointment. The Bird People of China eschews this trend because not only are the protagonists seemingly uninterested in seeking a new life for themselves, but they reluctantly manage to discover this mythical Shangri-la where peace and acceptance awaits. Perhaps it is this deeply ironic twist that attracted the director to the project, but there’s no denying that in Wada and Yuji we have a couple of atypical “Miike” anti-heroes. Even in the village there’s room for some traditional Miike outcasts. Most of the young adults in the village view the bird people legends as nothing but a pipedream, but Yan fiercely believes in her grandfather’s teachings, and then there’s the matter of her mixed-race descent. Another common Miike touch is in the juxtaposing of Wada’s business orders and Yujie’s Yakuza orders in Japan, not only is it an amusing way to highlight their similarities, but it’s also deglamourising the gangster lifestyle in the process. Most of Miike’s films to date have been Yakuza dramas, but he’s never been interested in projecting a romantic image of this life.
As rich in characterisation as The Bird People in China may be, it means nothing if the actors aren’t up to the task of realising them. Thankfully the cast are uniformly excellent. Masahiro Motoki may be better known to Western viewers for his more outlandish roles in Shinya Tsukamoto’s Gemini or Masayuki Suo’s Sumo Do, Sumo Don’t but he fits into the part of Wada like a glove. Amply expressing the inner turmoil and sombre, introspective nature of the character. Still, as good as he is, it’s the veteran character actors Mako and Renji Ishibashi who truly shine. Mako is no stranger to western audiences having starred in numerous high-profile Hollywood films over the years, but as the affable Chinese guide, Shen, he is given a role with plenty of scope to flex his comic muscles deliver a performance that is a sheer delight to watch. Renji Ishibashi has starred in countless Yakuza films over the years so he’s certainly in his element here, putting in a performance that’s as warm as it is tough, capturing the child-like regression of the character and the menace behind his burgeoning mental instability with the skill only a veteran can achieve.
With the story being more understated than most of his films, there’s not so much need for Miike to unleash his catalogue of stylistic tricks, but he does manage to squeeze in one or two of his distinct stylistic touches. He makes full use of a rapid sped-up montage to introduce us to the frantic hustle and bustle of Wada’s life in Tokyo. It’s accentuated further by the measured pacing in the second half as the peaceful life of the villagers comes to the fore. Further contrasts between these worlds are drawn by the chosen colour scheme – another common trick the director incorporates into his film. Tokyo life is a blue-filtered collage of greys and whites, drab colours to match the lifestyle, whereas the Chinese countryside is awash with colour. When the Japanese visitors finally arrive at their destination, a yellow filter kicks in, giving the picture a golden hue and intensifying the greens in the picture. It would be unfair to give Miike all the credit for the stunning look of the film though. Hideo Yamamoto is one of the most talented Director’s of Photography working within the Japanese film industry and has worked with Miike on numerous films, always bringing out the most in the director’s style. He must have had a very rough time shooting on-location around Yun Nan province but the end result is nothing short of breathtaking, as the majestic sweeping mountain sides and epic geography of the area overshadows almost every other aspect of the film. If you’re left with one memory by the closing credits, it will probably be of the gorgeous canvass on which this gentle story is painted. Either that or the rousing message that even the most fantastical dreams may not be impossible to realise after all.
PresentationPresented anamorphically at an aspect ratio of 1.81:1, I wish I could say the excellent cinematography looks great on DVD, but this tape-sourced transfer is mediocre at best. The image is extremely soft, reaching almost VCD levels of softness and even though the compression isn’t too bad, the lack in detail results in some noticeable smear creeping in. Colours are generally solid and relatively clean, with the palette being intentionally muted during the first half, but when the yellow-filtered second half kicks in the scheme is noticeably bolder. As for the print itself, it’s pretty clean, with only occasional pops and scratches appearing throughout. However, it appears to have been the victim of some rather overzealous processing, resulting in terrible, terrible contrast levels. Other nuisances pervade, like the excessive Edge Enhancement and Cross Colouration that’s consistently noticeable throughout. These latter niggles are inexcusable, but problems with the print itself is most likely indicative of the limitations of Miike’s approach to filmmaking at the time – relying on local film processing to give his movies a distinct flavour.
Note: The print used for this film has burned in Japanese subtitles during the Chinese dialogue in the film, just like Kino’s release of Dead Or Alive: Final.
In a move that flies in the face of logic ArtsmagicDVD have decided to forget about the solid DD2.0 Surround tracks they provided for their previous Miike releases and instead leave us with a solitary Japanese DD5.1 track. Ordinarily this wouldn’t be a bad thing, but it seems whoever knocked this track together doesn’t quite understand how 5.1 should sound. Just like their Young Thugs releases, The Bird People in China has been given a horrendous “monofied” 5.1 remix with the same sound coming out of each speaker. Some audio elements become louder than others in separate channels, giving us a faint hint of directionality – say for instance someone is speaking off screen to the left then the dialogue from the left channels will be marginally louder than from the others - but the fact there is still dialogue coming from all five channels at once results in a hollow, echo effect at times. It’s completely unnecessary as well because all they had to do was include a DD2.0. It wouldn’t take up any needed disc space and would satisfy the purists who hate it when the film’s sound is fiddled about with.
If you don’t notice the horrendous remix then you will probably enjoy this track, the bass is full, although perhaps a little too warm, while dialogue is clear and audible at all times with only a few instances of audio tear.
As always, optional English subtitles are provided, which remain clear and readable at all times, even when they’re displayed over the burnt-in Japanese subtitles that crop up infrequently throughout the film.
ExtrasCasting aside my disappointment with the film presentation, I have to admit that ArtsmagicDVD continue to spoil Miike fans with a fine selection of extras. The biggest inclusion is of course the commentary with Japanese film expert Tom Mes, which covers just about everything you need to know about the themes and performers in the film. Next up is a 17minute interview with Takashi Miike that gives us plenty of insight into the early days of the production. He’s as good-natured as ever and provides some valuable information on how novelist Makoto Shiina first stumbled upon the idea of writing a story on a group of bird people in the Chinese mountainside, make sure you check this feature out. As usual there are extensive Bio/Filmographies for Miike and the three male leads and trailers for the main feature and Black Society Trilogy films. Another worthwhile extra is the gallery of promotional material, which incorporates magazine articles on the film’s shoot. Last but not least is an informative essay on the Scottish Folk song Annie Laurie. There are optional English subtitles for all the extra features that require them.
It’s worth noting some playback issues I had on my Toshiba DVD player. The Tom Mes commentary stuttered for a very short while near the start and the trailer for Shinjuku Triad Society crashes near the end, forcing me to stop the disc and restart.