With the majority of Takashi Miike’s most notorious films (Ichi the Killer, Visitor Q, Audition) now available on DVD, Western fans are finally getting the chance to catch up on some of the great man’s less typical, more idiosyncratic work. The Bird People in China is – for the most part – a world away from the twisted delights of his best known movies; it’s a strange, lyrical comedy drama more in common with the magic realism of Werner Herzog.
Masahiro Motoki plays Wada, a Japanese businessman who is sent to rural China to seek out some rare jade for his company. As he and his guide Shen (a hilariously bumbling Mako) begin their journey into the mountains, they are joined by Ujiie (Renji Ishibashi) a tough Yakuza whose gang is owed money by Wada’s bosses. His mission is to make sure Wada delivers the jade into the hands of the gang, but finding themselves stranded in a remote village, both men are slowly changed by their surroundings.
Based on Makoto Shiina’s novel, The Bird People in China is a film of two halves. The first part is a knockabout road comedy, as Wada, Ujiie and Shen make their disaster-prone journey to the village. Ujiie doesn’t want to be here in the first place, and as he learns that his journey involves travelling by car, foot and boat up mountains and across rivers for several days his mood gets worse and worse. Wada is at first horrified to find out that this violent, foul-mouthed gangster will be his travelling companion, but soon dedication to his job takes over. Much of this is very funny – Shen’s car is literally falling apart around them, the trio get high on mushrooms halfway up the mountain, and Shen develops amnesia after hitting his head on a rock.
The tone shifts once the threesome reach the village in which they spend the remainder of the film; what they find is a community bonded by an obsession with flying. The children take lessons with wings strapped to their backs, and although some residents mock this strange tradition, Wada and Ujiie are fascinated by it. Both men have a reason not to return to city-life – Wada has fallen for Yan (Li Li Wang) a young woman who gives the children their ‘flying lessons’ and sets about trying to translate a Scottish folk song that she constantly sings. Ujiie has simply had enough of being a gangster. For all his tough bluster, he has nightmares about the brutal life he leads and the longer he spends in this isolated haven the stronger his desire to stay gets, ultimately spilling over into violence to protect it.
This is a slow, lengthy film, but while otherwise crazed pictures like Dead or Alive were needlessly bogged down by long stretches of nothing much, the considered pace really suits the meditative, quasi-fantastic tone. Life in the village does move slowly, and is contrasted to the frantic, high-speed montages of Tokyo with which the film opens. Miike makes good use of long takes and Kôji Endô’s atmospheric score, while cinematographer Hideo Yamamoto – who shot many of Miike’s films and most recently the Hollywood remake of The Grudge – captures the rugged beauty of China’s Yunnan province in frequent breathtaking style.
Flight is used as a metaphor for escape, and in the end Wada and Ujiie themselves don fragile wings to settle their differences and decide their fates. Miike closes on an elusive, haunting note – The Bird People in China is a richly textured, genuinely heartfelt film, and in many ways the director's most accomplished work.
Japan’s most controversial director, notorious for his dauntingly prolific output and willingness to push the boundaries of taste. Miike started working as an assistant director in the late 80s, before moving into making straight-to-video thrillers in 1991. He made his feature debut in 1995 with the violent cop thriller Shinjuku Triad Society, and since then has averaged around seven films year.