90s Far East Bracket: Chûgoku No Chôjin (The Bird People In China, 1998)

The first film in my sixth match-up in the second round of the 90s Far East Bracket features a bad end for some turtles, I feel sorry for those turtles!

Screenplay By: Masa Nakamura
Directed By: Takashi Miike

There are two films at play in Chûgoku No Chôjin, a journey film and a discovery film. The journey film takes up the first forty minutes of Chûgoku No Chôjin, and the final seventy minutes are the discovery film. Takashi Miike blends those two films into a cohesive whole, the only real misstep is in the first ten minutes after the switch from the journey to discovery film takes place. It took me all of those ten minutes to accept the change in films, but once I was able to accept said change I enjoyed the complete picture that Miike-san was trying to bring forth.

The journey film of Chûgoku No Chôjin caused me to laugh the most, and it interested me the most. The getting to know one another aspect of most journey films was tossed to the side in favor of a series of absurd moments and reactions. Masahiro Motoki, as Wada, stole the show during this half of the film. His reactions to situations reminded me of something I expect to see in a Coen Brothers film, specifically The Big Lebowski. Wada constantly has a look of confusion on his face, it never went away during the first half of Chûgoku No Chôjin. At some point the film shifted from showcasing the reasons why Wada was confused, instead it placed the focus on his confused reactions. This prompted much laughter to emanate from my Sycamore apartment, the more confused Wada became and the more the camera focused on that the more I laughed.

Once the small jade village was reached Wada’s confusion slowly disappeared and the tone of the film drastically changed. Laughter and absurdity were no longer the meals of the day, inner discovery had taken over the entire menu. Wada maintained a strong role in the second half of the film, but the focus clearly fell more on Ujiie, Renji Ishibashi, during the village scenes. Ujiie had trouble dealing with such a drastic change in ways of life, his fascination with the famed bird people only furthered his troubles. Ujiie became the character we discovered with, as he discovered his own feelings on wealth, power, etc., so did we. Miike-san, and the screen writer Masa Nakamura, never push the films themes too hard. It’s easy for a tale of self-discovery to push too hard for the viewer to partake in the discovery of its characters. Miike-san and company hold back and use a restrained storytelling style that allowed me to take in the discoveries of the characters more organically.

Where Chûgoku No Chôjin could have completely fell apart was in its two disparate tones. It’s not hyperbole to say that the pre-village scenes are nothing like the village scenes. Because Chûgoku No Chôjin ends up being a tale of discovery the different tones aren’t jarring (outside of the brief ten minute “getting used to it” period I wrote about earlier). It made sense to me that as the characters discovered themselves more the tone would shift greatly. By the end of Chûgoku No Chôjin the characters were different and the movie had subverted any and all expectations I had of it.

For someone who likes Takashi Miike, Chûgoku No Chôjin was a very interesting departure from form for him. That’s not to say that Miike-san has a distinct style, he’s always shown a variety of approaches to film making. As I have moved through Miike-san’s catalog I haven’t comes across anything like Chûgoku No Chôjin so far, it isn’t an exercise in style, a gangster film, or like anything else he has done. Chûgoku No Chôjin is a Takashi Miike film, but it’s also a filmmaker spreading his wings (pardon the terrible pun if you will). Chûgoku No Chôjin isn’t super stylish, it doesn’t push its message hard, and it fully realizes two very different types of films, quite the discovery this film has been.




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