In Takashi Miike’s meditative drama, the journey to finding yourself is half the fun.
“”Since my birth, I’ve slept more than 10,000 times. But I’ve never had a dream of myself flying like a bird.”
It’s nice seeing a director go out of their comfort zones and try something unique and interesting. Sometimes it might be in the form of a foreign language film (which can be either great – Park Chan-wook’s Stoker, awful – Takeshi Kitano’s Brother or something I like but I know no one else does, like Kim Jee-woon’s Last Stand), or maybe they switch format to TV or short film. Or, in this case, they go to China and make a low-key drama about modernisation – and still somehow manage to include a Yakuza shoot-out.
The Bird People in China revolves around two characters: Wada (Masahiro Motoki), a businessman and Ujiie (Renji Ishibashi), a yakuza. Wada is on a business trip to a remote Chinese village where he is to assess a vein of supposedly excellent-quality jade. Ujiie is there to make sure that the criminal organisation Wada’s company owes money to gets its proper share of the jade. They hire bilingual guide Shen (renowned voice actor Mako, in one of his few Japanese-language roles) to help them along the way. Things, naturally go a bit awry after a mountain storm blows all of Wada’s documents away and tensions naturally start to run high.
Things don’t get much better when, after a weird shrooms trip, Shen loses his memory but somehow they manage to make it to the village, whose children don wings made from paper, and stand at the tops of the highest cliffs. As the two men settle in, assessing the jade and hoping their guide regains his memory, they get to know the children’s teacher, a blue-eyed woman named Yan (Li Li Wang), who is apparently teaching the kids to fly. They learn her history, the beautiful English-language song she sings, and the quaint history of this secluded little place.
At its core, the movie weighs the benefits of globalisation against the detrimental effects that a constant, encroaching civilisation can have on a place as secluded as this village. Ujiie, at the climax of the movie, feels so strongly for this place that he’s willing to kill anyone who even thinks about mining the jade yet, at the same time, one of the village’s most endearing trait is from some random British air force guy crash landing and making this place his home. I really like the message at the heart of the movie, and it’s one that never takes any side in the argument. Miike carefully balances this with the sense of whimsy and light fantasy that permeates the entire movie, although with that said I probably would have enjoyed more of that sense of wonder, which might have been unplayed a tad.
Despite this film’s oft-discussed differences to Miike’s regular style, there are still plenty of elements that tie it to the man. His most recurring theme is that of alienation, and we see plenty of this here. Both Wada and Ujiie find themselves completely out of their depths on multiple occasions, and poor Shen even spends half the movie without a memory. This is seen quite a bit at the beginning, where Wada and Ujiie struggle to simply arrive. The first half of the movie is dedicated to this: language barriers, shoddy vans, turtle rafts and a seemingly endless hike across totally alien mountainscapes all come together to make the men feel as lost as humanly possible.
This is only emphasised more when they find themselves essentially trapped in the village, and the language barriers between the men and the villagers, as well as the entire concept of the village – something almost entirely untouched by civilisation – just feed into Miike’s contrast between this place and their comfortable, bustling Tokyo lives. He does well to visually differentiate between both, utilising lengthy wide shots in the village but giving the scenes in Tokyo a quick-cut shaky-cam feel. This does something to the audience, as well: it’s telling us that we’re leaving regular Miike territory for something calm, contemplative and surprisingly good.
That’s the biggest difference. Takashi Miike has always been a decent director, whose eclectic style and mannerisms make it difficult to define as good or bad. He’s certainly got a large pile of films in both categories. The Bird People in China is one of his earlier attempts at making a movie that was genuinely good and could be appreciated by everyone, not just fans of schlocky gangster exploitation flicks. The effort he puts in pays off, as Bird People is a solid drama, with touching moments, engaging characters and a solid message. To a 1998 audience, it’s a sign that Miike isn’t just a one-trick pony, and it’s worth sticking around to see what else he’s got up his sleeves.
Verdict: Bird People is charming in its simplicity, but it could have done with a bit more wonder
Overall entertainment: 7/10
Violence: 5/10. This is a Miike film, after all
Chinese Landscape Shots: 9/10
Bird People: None, at least in the literal sense
Turtles: Plenty of those
The Bird People in China (1998)
Also known as: 中国の鳥人
Director: Takashi Miike
Writers: Makoto Shiina (novel), Masa Nakamura (screenplay)
Masahiro Motoki – Wada
Renji Ishibashi – Ujiie
Mako – Shen
Li Li Wan – Yan