Bird People of China
with Masahiro Motoki, Renji Ishibashi, Mako
Directed by Takashi Miike
Written by Makoto Shiina, Masa Nakamura
(Arts Magic DVD)
by Chad Van Wagner
If, for some unfathomable reason, you’ve been keeping track of my overall view on film, you’ll’ve noticed that I like director Takashi Miike a whole bunch. The man has directed no fewer than four hundred and seventy-five thousand films in the last few years, and while they can’t all be classics, his overall output has shown a consistency that really should be impossible. Add to that the fact that (despite being mostly known for his hyper-violent work) he can seemingly do anything and everything, and one is left wondering when he’s going to either explode (like Kitano “Beat” Takeshi) or screw up horribly (like Dario Argento’s cringe-worthy attempts to crack the American market). Let’s be honest, most directors can’t manage ten good films in their lifespan. Miike did that last year alone.
So the shock here is not that Bird People of China is great, the shock is that it’s great in yet another way I didn’t expect. He keeps doing this, and it’s starting to bug me.
At the risk of going with the easy answer, Bird People of China is essentially a surreal, Japanese version of Local Hero. If that doesn’t mean anything to you, you’re missing out, both on Local Hero, and the inevitable joy at hearing there’s another one like it out there.
The plot is simple, and essentially, little more than an excuse. A harried, nervous salaryman is sent by his boss on a huge, career-making assignment: Go out to the middle of nowhere (in this case, an extremely remote village in China) and buy the town to get the jade mine.
The first half of the film is just getting there. Oddly (although, as it turns out, tellingly), Miike has our protagonists arriving at the village the only way anyone knows how: By a primitive raft pulled by giant turtles. If this sounds like a fairy tale, you’re not far off. Once in the village, we discover that there’s a tradition of teaching the children to fly, started by one villager’s grandfather (who came out of the sky years ago).
To say more would be giving it away, but this is not “typical” Miike fare (although the word “typical” is used as loosely as possible here). Despite a somewhat rough beginning involving a Yakuza who tags along for the ride, this is a film you could watch with your Mom, and both enjoy it. “Charming” is a word I use sparingly, but that’s really what this is: Charming. And if the final, dreamlike image doesn’t put a lump in your throat, you have no soul. Outstanding.