The Bird People in China (1998)
By: M. Walsh on November 9, 2005  |  Comments  |  Bookmark and Share
Siren Visual Entertainment (Australia). All Regions, PAL. 1:85:1 (16:9 enhanced). Japanese DD 5.1, Japanese DD 2.0. English Subtitles. 119 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)
Country: Japan
AKA: Chûgoku no chôjin
Going into this film, I really didn't know what to expect. Knowing that The Bird People In China was a departure from Takashi Miike's more extreme work had rendered me somewhat disinterested and more than a little afraid. Mind you, it was not the subject matter, or the pacing or even the lack of sex and violence that worried me. It was the very real fear that, given a film with subject matter as lyrical and delicate as this, Miike would merely coast through the process while gearing himself up to shoot Young Thugs: Nostalgia.

I have no idea why I ever doubted him.

The Bird People In China is not only one of the most unexpected surprises I have had this year, it is also one of Takashi Miike's best films. However, in the same way that Fudoh and Ichi the Killer are most certainly not everyone's cup of poisoned saki, this excellent film is sure to leave many viewers cold as well.

Wada (Masahiro Motoki) is a Japanese salary-man on his way to a Chinese province to investigate claims of a rich vein of Jade that runs through a village in the Yun Nan mountainside. Before his journey can even begin he is saddled with a crotchety old Yakuza called Yuji (Renji Ishibashi, who is fantastic here). With the help of a guide, Shen (Mako!!), the two men travel by foot and by raft until they reach their destination, a beautiful, mist-covered hamlet that is home to a pretty young woman who teaches children how to fly with the aid of mechanical wings.

What a simple plot synopsis of the film doesn't do is provide any sense of how funny, beautifully made, wonderfully acted, bittersweet and, at times, intense The Bird People In China really is. What starts out as a relatively broad buddy-comedy becomes something magical and, most surprisingly of all, dark. For an apparently whimsical and lighthearted drama, this film ventures into some really unexpected territory.

I honestly wasn't prepared for The Bird People In China. It is a far richer, more rewarding and more beautiful experience than I was anticipating. It is also told with consummate filmmaking skill. And the ending, far from being the saccharin overload that I feared it would, was just about perfect: logical, sparse and well earned.

Don't let the lack of Miike's more extreme trademarks deter you. I can't guarantee that everyone who sees The Bird People In China will enjoy it, but I'm sure that I'm not the only one to go into this film with some serious reservations and come out very pleasantly surprised.

This is a non-anamorphic transfer and the lack of 16x9 enhancement is the least of its problems. Edge enhancement is prevalent, there is visible smearing throughout the film and the image itself is far too bright and soft. The print appears rather battered at times and, although this is hardly a major issue on its own it becomes more problematic when combined with the other flaws. Not good. The English subtitles are removable but the Japanese subtitles, appearing during scenes of Chinese dialogue, are not.
Siren Visual have provided a 5.1 remix which is, from what I have read, far superior to those found on the overseas releases. It is warm and clear with some great use of directional effects. The 2.0 mix is also very good and is an added bonus for purists who like the option of watching their films with the original mix.
Extra Features

A trailer for the film, the image quality of which is worse than the main feature.

The Verdict
A really quite brilliant film that eschews expectations and, most satisfyingly of all, offers no easy answers. While certainly not for everyone, The Bird People In China is a major work in Miike's catalogue and those who do connect with it are in for a real treat.

A four star film let down by an, unsurprisingly, poor transfer.

Movie Score
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