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Friday, February 24, 2012

CHUGOKO NO CHOJIN / THE BIRD PEOPLE IN CHINA (1998)

Japanese helmer Takashi Miike has built a substantial cult following in the West with his taboo-busting ultra-violent fare, but he shows a kinder, gentler (but still alarmingly rude & funny) side in this outstanding modern Shangra-La fable. Masahiro Motoki, recently seen in DEPARTURES/’08, is equally good here as an untested Japanese exec sent to investigate a rumored Jade deposit way off the beaten track in China. But he’s picked up an unwanted partner along the way, a seriously unhinged Yakuza (Renji Ishibashi) with a grudge against his company. Their guide (Mako) isn’t much more help, but somehow, after Miike puts them thru every possible traveling nightmare, they arrive. And find an enchantment; a lost utopian world that holds many secrets . . . and all the Jade they could wish for. Oddest of all is the local tradition of teaching their children how to fly like a bird. Allegory on civilization’s loss of innocence? Or the real deal? Miike’s not tipping his hand till the very end, if then. He’s too busy stirring things up with kicks in the face, a mysterious Scottish ballad, turtle-powered river rafts and sputtering doorless motor vans. The DVD doesn’t do full justice to the cinematography, but don’t let that hold you back.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Miike must have been tickled to have Mako in his cast, placing him (via THE SAND PEBBLES/’66) a mere two degrees away from Steve McQueen.

DOUBLE-BILL: Two more eccentric Shangra-Las in need of special protection - LOST HORIZON/’37; LOCAL HERO/’83.

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