The Bird People of China

Wada Masahiro Motoki

Wada Masahiro Motoki

Ujiie Renji Ishibashi

Shen Mako

Yan Wang Li Li

Sure to please fest auds, “The Bird People of China” remains disarmingly sweet-natured to the end – even if its concentration of flaws in the second act will likely reduce significant export biz. China-set/Japanese-made cross-cultural comedy, with a lyrical-fantasist undercurrent, will play well to discerning auds at home and in limited offshore markets.

Though never less than assured, director Takashi Miike’s feature is sharply divided at midpoint. The first half offers very droll, off-center humor. Second half – more likely to challenge international commercial viability – digresses toward an earnest whimsy whose eventual sappy, heavier-handed qualities won’t translate quite so well.

At outset, young protagonist Wada (Masahiro Motoki) is a stereotype corporate-Tokyo yuppie informing us via voice-over that his last-minute trip to Mainland China is a nerve-racking personal first: He’s journeying to investigate a jade lode for his big-bucks firm. The trip’s sleep-deprived disorientation is exacerbated by a strange man’s apparent shadowing.

Once Wada is met by guide Shen (Hollywood vet Mako), the stranger rudely makes himself known. Ujiie (Renji Ishibashi) is a middle-aged strong-arm whose Yakuza gang is owed money by the incredulous hero’s company. He makes a bullying pest of himself – with Wada the usual hapless victim – while all head toward remotest Yun Nan region.

This journey, loopy from the outset, gets weirder as the trio inches nearer their destination by auto, foot and raft. Only good luck lands the protags where they’re supposed to be – a village whose majority populace seems very eager to trade traditional customs for the jade-funded, possibly destructive changes that electricity, wealth and commerce-propelled access might bring.

Derided as a backward local “shame” by some is young Yan (Wang Li Li), who runs the arm-flapping school for “flying people”-though none of her numerous young charges have evidently succeeded in going aviary yet.

Wada becomes fascinated with figuring out the truth behind this enigma, which evidently involves a semi-mythic forebear’s World War I plane crash. Less predictably, the notion of flight brings out a gentler, child-like side to brutish Ujiie. Yet as Wada grows more enamored with this murky past – and, by suggestion, with Yan – Ujiie rebounds toward now-fully unhinged menace.

Despite pic’s very careful directorial handling, this turn tips scales away from its prior deadpan tone toward melodrama. Buildup and climactic conflict abandon nearly all terse-but-accessible prior delicacy. Suddenly, too-earnest violent threats and crude political/environmental pontifications reign. The 30 -years-later coda, while pat-melancholy, provides the window for a lyrical, fantastic, digitized-transcendent final image.

Perfs are uniformly very strong, while lensing captures rural Chinese landscapes frequently to ravishing effect. Other tech contribs are excellent. “Bird People of China” feels like a willful crossover effort toward Western auds – often entrancing, but the intended formula hasn’t gelled quite yet.

The Bird People of China

(SERIOCOMIC FANTASY -- JAPANESE)

Production: A Sedic Intl. production. Produced by Toshiyaki Nakazawa. Executive producer, Nakazawa. Directed by Takashi Miike. Screenplay, Masa Nakamura, based on a novel by Makoto Shiina.

Crew: Camera (color), Hideo Yamamoto; editor, Taiji Shimamura; music, Koji Endo; art director, Tomohiro Masumoto. Reviewed at Kabuki 8, San Francisco, April 2, 1998. (In San Francisco Film Festival.) Running time: 118 MIN.

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