Color, 1998, 118m. / Directed by Takashi Miike / Starring Masahiro Motoki, Renji Ishibashi, Mako, Li Li Wang / Artsmagic (US R1 NTSC), Universe (Korea R3 NTSC), Sedec (Japan R2 NTSC) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9) / DD5.1


In the mountainous province of Yunnan, young corporate representative Wada (Motoki) travels by train on a business trip to investigate a newly discovered vein of jade. Along the way he's joined by an ill-tempered mobster, Ujiie (Miike regular Ishibashi), who represents the company's debt to his crime cohorts and is ill-prepared to contend with the forbidding region. Their guide, Shen (Conan the Barbarian's Mako) leads them through threatening foliage, hallucinogenic mushrooms and volatile weather to the village where a beautiful schoolteacher (Wang) instructs her pupils in the art of making wings to fly like birds.

Never one to conform to expectations, director Miike helmed this stab at magic realism between his first breakthrough film, Fudoh, and his subsequent gorefests like Dead or Alive. Completely devoid of violence or sensationalistic material, this thoughtful study in man's relationship with the world comes off more like a Japanese spin on Local Hero by way of Werner Herzog. The increasingly fantastic nature of the material is well established in the second hour, which convincingly sketches events bordering on the mythic in a calm, subdued manner that pays off in the beautiful closing minutes. The yakuza presence keeps Bird People in China (Chűgoku no ch˘jin) from stepping completely out of line with expectations, but it'still a wholly unexpected experience based on the rest of his work available in the West. Aside from a few profane epithets, this is a Miike fan that even the most sensitive viewers can enjoy.

One of the more difficult Miike films to find in English, Bird People in China gets a much-needed special edition courtesy of Artsmagic. Previous editions from Japan and Korea suffered from lack of subtitles and dodgy transfers respectively, so this version is the one to get. Bathed in dreamy green and gray hues, the cinematography looks fine here despite the inherent softness in much of the photography. Agitator author Tom Mes contributes a solid, Dutch-accented commentary track in which he explores the film's common threads with Miike's other films, its reflections of the culture it intends to explore, and the various symbolic tropes running through the story.

Video extras kick off with another colorful Miike interview in which the director (who seems to be suffering from a cold) talks about the difficulties in getting the production off the ground (so to speak), the challenges imposed by the terrain during shooting, and his impressions of the tightly-budgeted final result ("I think I shot that film like a man with a fever"). Other goodies include the original Japanese trailer (with optional English subtitles), a promotional gallery, previews for the three films in Miike's Black Society Trilogy, and lyrics and notes on the song "Anne Laurie," which plays a pivotal role in the film.


Color, 2000, 105 mins. / Directed by Takashi Miike / Starring Teah, Michele Reis / Ventura/Chimera (US R0 NTSC) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9) / DD5.1


Following the atypical Audition, the obscenely prolific Takashi Miike returned to the stomping grounds of his classic crime favorites (Fudoh, Dead or Alive) with City of Lost Souls (Hy˘ryuu-gai), his take on the familiar criminal-lovers-on-the-run subgenre. Of course, this being a Miike film, that also means spastic editing, outrageous violence, and enough energy to fuel a dozen American action knockoffs.

Writing to her mother, pretty Kei (Michele Reis) enthuses to her mother about her wonderful Brazilian boyfriend, Mario (Teah), who's then seen blasting away some adversaries, Sergio Leone-style, in a dusty border town. Mario then hijacks a helicoptor to rescue Kei from a deportation bus, instigating an elabroate chain of events involving a feud between the yakuza and the Chinese mob, a mysterious young girl, and Mario's ex, Lucia (Patricia Manterola), whose help may come at a high price. Then there's Kei's former flame, pretty boy gangster Ko (Mitsuhiro Oikawa), who's after the lovers with an axe to grind, literally.

Spiked with bizarre touches like the now infamous CGI cockfight (a Matrix spoof, believe it or not) and a sadistic showdown straight out of a Russ Meyer film, City of Lost Souls largely avoids the gruesome excesses of Dead or Alive, though you do get the occasional bad taste hiccup like a man's face plunged into a bloody toilet. The focus here is on action, pure and simple, with lots of macho gun-toting, pursuits, double crosses, and international intrigue to keep the proceedings speedy even when they don't always quite make sense. None of the characters are really sympathetic, but Miike does manage to pull off an effective love story nonetheless which at least makes one wish the couple would steer away from their rollercoaster ride straight to hell.

The American DVD presented under the auspices of the American Cinematheque is a tremendous leap over the earlier non-anamorphic, no-frills Tai Seng disc. The transfer looks excellent and, in a rarity for a Japanese title, appears to be freshly struck for Western NTSC standards with dead-on black levels. The explosive 5.1 soundtrack keeps the rear channels active through most of the running time (dig those opening credits!). Also included are detailed liner notes by the Cinematheque's Chris D. (in which he places the film in context both as Hong Kong entertainment and Miike's stab at film noir), a reel of rough behind-the-scenes footage showing Miike at work during three of the action sequences, a demo of the video game Escape from Tokyo, and a huge array of alternate trailers and TV spots, with additional trailers for other titles in the series like Black Rose Mansion. Incidentally, the DVD kicks off with the full red-band U.S. trailer for Audition before the menu screen, so prepare to settle back for a few minutes.


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