Review: The Bird People in China (1998)

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Cast: , ,

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I’d like to be able to start this review off by saying that, on the surface at least, The Bird People in China is a bit like a road movie, Miike-style. Unfortunately that would be somewhat less than true because, actually, it’s a little more like a road movie Kitano-style. Takashi Miike – best known for films both creepy and extreme – turns his hand to a subject a little more intimate than blood and guts; heart and soul, and does it in such a subdued and masterful way that its emotional pace follows more closely the low-key, high-impact work of another cinematic great, Takeshi Kitano than any of the extremes of gangster cinema Miike is better known for.

However, the initial similarities in quirky narrative between those Kitano films (like Hana-bi) and Miike’s Bird People is about where the parallels that can be drawn end. Whereas Kitano sets a measured pace to offset the shocking kineticism of later violence, Miike’s film moves in order to let you absorb, using the vast, awe-inspiring backdrop of provincial China as a palette with which to paint his picture, and gains momentum like a stone rolling down a hill. Wada (Masahiro Motoki), a typical young businessman, is sent on an unexpected trip to the Yun Nan province in China when his boss falls ill, and so finds himself on a strange journey with an enthusiastic guide (played brilliantly by veteran actor Mako) and the yakuza Ujiie (Renji Ishabashi) whose group has vested interests in Wada’s company and the untapped vein of jade Wada has been sent to prospect. At first the film is exactly the quirky comedy of characters and errors it looks like, injected with Miike’s own personal brand of black humour as Wada and Ujiie struggle through the dominating Chinese landscape, travelling further and further away from the existence they know.

The further the characters depart from ‘civilisation’, the more the film becomes something else – an allegory for man’s loss of innocence and his yearning to regain it. Deep in the Yun Nan mountains, Wada and Ujiie are brought to a village where the people believe that once, men had wings. The sheer idyllic symbolism of this notion is not lost on either the characters or the viewer, no matter its mundane origins discovered later on, and it is perhaps these less than mythological origins which give the film its true purpose. While the pragmatic Wada attempts to untangle the mystery surrounding the bird people myth with logic and a dictionary, Ujiie throws himself into it head first, and of the two men, it appears that it is the criminal who is coping better with the drastic change in lifestyle, while Wada is seen to cling to the technology he left behind. But the myth, if not a lie, is at least an idea built on a misunderstanding and Ujiie eventually refuses to acknowledge this. At his core, he longs for the lost innocence he sees embodied in the village, and yet, he is not equipped to think beyond what his past has made him. When the purpose for which the men arrived in the first place starts to threaten Ujiie’s desire for salvation, the yakuza’s desperation to protect, this second time around, takes a dark turn.

The emotions in this film resonate with a subtle realism. Miike treats his characters in Bird People with an economy of sensitivity – enough to be evocative without going to unnecessary excess in unexpected places, and leaves the glory to the elements that surround. The idea of something of value once possessed and carelessly thrown away is represented with impressive depth both in the remote location – a literal metaphor for the encroachment of industry upon nature, chaos upon pristine order – and in Ujiie, whose identity is both constructed and destroyed by the gangster traditions he cannot escape. Wada on the other hand seems to embody the search for personal meaning in today’s impersonal world. He does not wish to abandon where he came from – can ignore his own origins no more than Ujiie can – but equally he sees with unclouded, arguably unselfish eyes what he will ruin should he bring his world to that of the bird people’s. His solution, in the end, is part realistic, part leap of faith; literally.

And in the final scenes of the film, it becomes clear that perhaps the conflict between the old and new, between the lost and found, is neither as discordant nor as destructive as it needs to be, if only it is mediated with understanding and compassion. Idealised conclusion, or message of hope; it is the humanising of the issues, both great and small, in Miike’s The Bird People in China that makes it a gorgeous and affecting film not only worth watching, but worth believing.

9 Turtle Tow-ropes out of 10.
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