Issue #239         HOME          E-mail:        BACK ISSUES          November 22nd, 2004

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The Bird People in China
(1998; Excellent Film/Sedic International/Hone Film/Marubeni Corporation/Yomiko Advertising)

Japanese: Chugoku no chojin


RATING: 8/10


Sent to Yunnan Province in Mainland China on business, meek Japanese salaryman Wada (GEMINI’s Masahiro Motoki) finds himself shadowed by a hot-headed yakuza named Uijie (Miike regular Renji Ishibashi). The gangster claims that Wada’s company owes Uijie’s boss money and insists on accompanying the young man into the mountains, where he has been instructed to confirm the existence of a large source of unrefined jade. Joining them is local guide Shen (Makoto Iwamatsu, very well known to Western audiences as simply Mako), who navigates the pair through an array of increasingly backwater locales, via some decidedly erratic modes of transportation. Once at their destination, the visitors become infatuated with this idyllic, untouched paradise and its natives, whose ancestors could reputedly fly.

Masahiro Motoki Mako (left), Renji Ishibashi Renji Ishibashi (left), Masahiro Motoki

Artsmagic’s latest Takashi Miike release is among the director’s most unique and admirable undertakings, in which he took his crew out into the magnificent wilds of rural China to adapt a novel by Makoto Shiina (who never actually journeyed to this area). The film starts off with a flurry of activity and then, appropriately, the pace becomes more and more measured as the protagonists venture further away from civilization and the stress of modern big city life. A common facet of Miike’s films is the transplanting of his Japanese protagonists in other Asian countries and how their perceptions of the world and themselves change as a result. BIRD PEOPLE may be the director’s ultimate experiment in this area, as his salaryman and yakuza are completely adrift in a world so alien to them, it might as well be the setting for a period fantasy (a feeling enhanced by occasional doses of magic realism). Wada falls for a local girl (Wang Li-li), with a surprising ancestry, but Uijie experiences a near-complete transformation upon re-discovering his inner child. When he feels this intoxicating serenity is being threatened, his violent nature inexorably resurfaces, but Miike ends this exotic odyssey on a poignant note that reminds one of the wonders lost to mankind via the relentless encroachment of civilization. It is a charming, often humorous and sincerely acted picture, and another entry in the Miike filmography which shows that his versatility rivals his more widely documented productivity.

Wang Lili (left), Mako Masahiro Motoki Masahiro Motoki (left), Renji Ishibashi


While this is apparently the first DVD edition of THE BIRD PEOPLE IN CHINA to be anamorphically enhanced, the presentation is a bit disappointing, even when taking into account the project’s modest budget and technical challenges. The image is rather soft and the mattes are sometimes lighter than the blacks onscreen, which is quite distracting (though not a problem for those with 16:9 displays). Colors are not as eye-popping as one would hope, given the incredibly picturesque locales, and the layer change is very poorly placed. The English subtitles are generally well-translated (permanent Japanese subs appear during the Mandarin dialogue) and the audio is workable, if a tad bland. Miike is interviewed in a 17 minute segment, touching on the problems associated with filming in such an isolated locale, and how he ended up undertaking this offbeat assignment. Tom Mes is back with another informative commentary, providing background on the leads, the director’s various techniques and the movie’s place in his filmography. Bios/filmographies, meticulously translated promo materials, trailers for this film and Miike’s BLACK SOCIETY TRILOGY, and the lyrics and history of the Scottish folk song "Annie Laurie"(which plays an important part in the narrative) round out a typically loaded Artsmagic package.

This DVD is available at Amazon:

Images in this review courtesy of Artsmagic. To read captions, hover mouse over image.

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Copyright © John Charles 2000 - 2004. All Rights Reserved.

DVD Specifications

  • U.S. Release
  • NTSC Region 0
  • Artsmagic #ATU 013
  • Dolby Digital 5.1
  • Sync Sound Japanese Language
  • Subtitles (Optional): English
  • 12 Chapters
  • 16:9 Enhanced (1.85:1)
  • 118 Minutes

Ratings & Consumer Information

  • Singapore: NC16
  • Contains moderate violence and coarse language


  • 10 A Masterpiece
  • 9 Excellent
  • 8 Highly Recommended
  • 7 Very Good
  • 6 Recommended
  • 5 Marginal Recommendation
  • 4 Not Recommended
  • 3 Poor
  • 2 Definitely Not Recommended
  • 1 Dreadful