The Bird People in China (1998)
By: CJ on February 15, 2005  |  Comments  |  Bookmark and Share
Artsmagic (USA). All Regions, NTSC. 1:85:1 (16:9 enhanced). Japanese DD 5.1, English Subtitles. 118 minutes
The Movie
Director: Takashi Miike
Starring: Masahiro Motoki, Renji Ishibashi, Makoto 'Mako' Iwamatsu and Li Li Wang
Screenplay: Masa Nakamura (based on a novel by Makoto Shiina)
Music: Kôji Endô
Tagline: 'I've slept more than 10,000 times, but I've never dreamt of flying like a bird…'
Country: Japan
AKA: Chûgoku no chôjin
Artsmagic unearth another Takashi Miike film in the form of The Bird People in China in their seemingly never ending commitment to making all of his works available on DVD. This film, however, is something of a departure for Miike and plays out as a kind of action adventure. He abandons the claustrophobic environs of the inner cities in favour of rolling mountains and breathtaking scenery. Also gone are the trademark violent set pieces, bar one dream sequence, which is pure Miike on top, aggressive form.

The story tells of how a young businessman is dispatched from Japan to the rural mountains of China to investigate a possible vein of jade that has been discovered there. Upon his arrival he is met by an aggressive and obnoxious Yakuza man who has been assigned to accompany the young Japanese businessman. Apparently, the company the young man works for owes a debt to the Yakuza, and the Yakuza mobster is to travel with him in the hope of a possible payoff in jade. Along with their guide, the trio set off into the wilds of China to search for this jade.

Upon reaching their destination, where the jade supposedly is to be found, they not only find what they came for, but they also discover a remote village set in the mountains. The unusual thing about the villagers, though, is that they venerate the legend of the 'Birdman' who came from the sky to their village. This legend is taught to the children at their 'flying school'. I won't give the story away too much, but the remainder of the film reveals the soul searching of these visitors and of how the Yakuza mobster in particular becomes enamoured with the place and the legend.

Those expecting another ballistic assault on the senses from Miike will be sorely disappointed, as this is a slow and meandering film with very little excitement. It's adapted from a well-known novel, apparently, and Miike does an efficient job of telling the story and shows that he is very able at character development. However, the film is also pretty dull and the snail's pace storytelling does it no favours. Sure, it looks very nice and the scenery is spectacular, but the film just seems to lack any real depth. After an hour or so I was just wishing for it to end – and this is not a good sign. To be fair, the acting is very good and Miike handles the material extremely well, but I just found it all rather uninteresting and boring. It became hard to care for the characters, as the tedium became increasingly burdening.

I daresay that many people will love this film, but it just wasn't for me, I'm afraid. If Miike had shaved half an hour off its running time and increased the pace of the film, I think it would have worked better. As it stands though, it's an original slice of Asian cinema, just not one that I enjoyed very much, sadly.
The film is presented in 1.85:1 with anamorphic enhancement and image detail is very good. The colours are consistent throughout and the blacks remain solid without any hint of digital smearing. The print used is free from any visible blemishes and looks as good as it possibly could do.
The audio provided is an uneventful Japanese 5.1 soundmix and sounds just about right. This is not a film that requires audio fireworks, so the sound is just right for the presentation. English subtitles are provided, which are clear and easy to read, so no problems in that department.
Extra Features
As usual, Artsmagic go out of their way to provide some worthwhile extras. This particular release includes an on-camera interview with director Takashi Miike, an audio commentary by the knowledgeable Tom Mes, theatrical trailer, promotional material and some background information on the song featured in the film. The latter supplementary feature will gain relevance once you've viewed the film. A very nice package and, once again, Artsmagic give their DVD added worth by the inclusion of these extras.
The Verdict
The Bird People in China is certainly a well-made and superbly acted film, unfortunately it just didn't grab my interest. I've no doubt that there is a potentially appreciative audience for this movie and there's no denying that the film is beautiful to look at – it's just that it seemed to me to lack substance. It was eye-candy and little more. It even lacked Miike's usually stylish directorial skills and was very static and uninteresting for the most part.
Movie Score
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