THE BIRD PEOPLE IN CHINA
(Chgoku no Chôjin)
As more and more of Takashi Miikes films are being rediscovered and released in the West, they continue to bring surprises. Most people typify Miike for his ultra-violent taboo-defying horror and his enormous body of yakuza films. Alongside these, The Bird People in China is a considerable surprise. While most of Takashi Miikes films are littered with scenes of casual violence and outrageous perversity, The Bird People in China is a genteel film about friendship and the veneration of traditional values. Indeed, while most of Takashi Miikes other films seem designed to thumb a nose at and shock moral standards, The Bird People in China sits at an almost 180 degree remove and says that some of these values are worth preserving. If anything, The Bird People in China has a contemplative beauty that feels like it is made more by Miikes countryman Takeshi Kitano than it does a characteristic Takashi Miike film. There is a yakuza hitman in the film but he is there more as the character who is changed and humanized by his experience.
For a time, The Bird People in China gives the impression that Takashi Miike is making a comedic variant on the traditional road movie, throwing two opposed city characters adrift in a rural backwater. There is a deadpan sense of humour to some of these scenes like the reactions of Masahiro Motoki and Renji Ishabashi as the side-door falls off the van and the driver stops, picks it up and puts on the side of the road, leaving it there as the translator tells them because he hasnt brought any rope today and assuring them at their stunned reactions Dont worry, nobodyll steal it, before they continue on and the steering wheel promptly comes off in the drivers hand. There is a sense of escalatingly black fatalism throughout the journey the collapsing van, rivers washed out, guides getting amnesia and forgetting where they are meant to be going. And then there is that ever so bizarre moment when they set out on a raft pulled by turtles, which makes you scratch your head and wonder what on Earth is going on.
The deadpan road movie soon drops away and The Bird People in China becomes a genteel, often moving portrait of a lost culture. In some ways, The Bird People in China is almost a science-fiction film it is often akin to a lost world film like The Island at the Top of the World (1974) or The Island (1980) concerning the discovery of a forgotten civilization. The latter two-thirds of the running time develops out into a story about cultural cross-pollination. The scenes with Masahiro Motoki piecing together the translation of the Scottish ballad Annie Laurie and the truth behind Yans grandfather is almost a pure science-fictional piece of conceptual breakthrough. The ballad when we hear it sung in its entirety is quite beautiful and these scenes hold an exquisite sense of seeing the way in which cultural myth grows.
Takashi Miike and his film crew shot the film in the real remote Yun Nan province and the locations have a haunting untouched splendour. The background scenes during the journey offer a fascinating portrait of untouched, rural backwater China and in showing just how rundown and underdeveloped the countryside is. The script does buy somewhat into the clichéd polarization of seeing peoples uncorrupted by civilization as pure and innocent and civilization, industry and commerce as evil, although, in the climactic moments, Masahiro Motoki is allowed to make an appeal on behalf of the virtues of civilization while being held at gunpoint and the film seems to aim for a point of happy reconciliation between the two. The Bird People in China however is a film that leaves one with an abiding sense of wanting to hold onto and preserve something innocent and pure. The moment of quasi-fantastical transcendence that the film goes out on with the bird people circling the mountain has a haunting loveliness.
Takashi Miikes other genre films are: Full Metal Yakuza (1997), a yakuza/cyborg film; the teen film Andromedia (1998) about a schoolgirl resurrected as a computer program; the torture and sadism film Audition (1999); the Yakuza film Dead or Alive (1999), which comes with a gonzo sf ending; the surreal Dead or Alive 2 Birds (2000); the six-hour tv mini-series MPD Psycho (2000) about a split-personalitied cop tracking a serial killer; the surreal black comedy The Happiness of the Katakuris (2001); Ichi the Killer (2001), a Yakuza film with some extreme torture scenes; the controversial taboo-defying Visitor Q (2001) about a mysterious visitor; the Cyberpunk future-set Dead or Alive: Final (2002); the surreal Yakuza film Gozu (2003); One Missed Call (2003) about ghostly cellphone calls; the ultra-violent Izo (2004) about a cursed, immortal samurai; an episode of the horror anthology Three ... Extremes (2004); the superhero film Zebraman (2004); the fairytale Demon Pond (2005); the supernatural fantasy epic The Great Yokai War (2005); Big Bang Love, Juvenile A (2006), a prison murder mystery with SF elements; the SF film Gods Puzzle (2008); YatterMan (2009), a gonzo live-action remake of a superpowered anime tv series; Zebraman 2: Attack on Zebra City (2010); Lesson of the Evil (2012) about a murderous high school teacher; As the Gods Will (2014) with high school students being slaughtered by a doll; Over Your Dead Body (2014) wherein the roles in a ghost story play come to replay themselves in the lives of the actors; the gonzo horror film Yakuza Apocalypse (2015); and Terra Formars (2016) about giant mutated cockroaches on Mars.