“The Bird People In China (1998), directed by Takashi Miike, is some kind of combination of drama, comedy and adventure. You would have never guessed it to be a work of Miike’s and honestly I thought it was made much longer ago than ‘98, with it’s lowly saturated color palette and an environment and cast that look like they’re from an 80’s movie. The execution of the film itself is one that I find reminiscent of his older works, but that doesn’t necessarily stop this movie from finding a way to capture your attention and maybe even play on your emotions a bit.
The film starts with a narrative spoken by a Japanese business man on a trip to China to scout a vein of jade located in the rural mountaintops. He’s surprised to find an unexpected travel companion in the form of a yakuza who’s been sent to make sure his family is repaid a loan made out to our business man’s company. This situation leads to a sort of ‘odd couple’ scenario; the business man’s quiet and serious demeanor is matched by the yakuza’s obnoxious and comedic personality. Their journey takes them through towns, country roads, rivers and eventually they reach a mountain top village where the jade is said to be located (but this isn’t before we get an interesting scene involving the men eating mushrooms as they stop for rest.)
What they find in the village is a curious culture made up of old superstitions around one man’s ability to fly, which instantly captures the attention of the yakuza. As time spent in the village goes on, they become more familiar with each other and the villagers alike and soon the yakuza is seen having more of a fun and carefree time than the business man. The plot begins to touch on themes of a modern, budding civilization and it’s positive and negative affects on an old world village and whether superstitions and stories could possibly be something more than just that. It’s intriguing; this combined with the film’s great visuals, all taking place in a gorgeously vast rural and undeveloped area, starts to grow on you. Like the main characters, you don’t want to leave.
I’m reminded of other films where characters find peace in foreign locations such as Miike’s “Rainy Dog” or Beat Takeshi’s “Sonatine“. While I wont say this movie is the greatest drama or most funny comedy, it has it’s charms. But with Audition only a year away, it’s hard to find this one underneath the shadow of other great Miike films. This one’s good and ultimately leaves you with a nice feeling and sense of closure but it’s a little long. I recommend it for serious Miike fans or those seeking a light slice of life.