Bird People in China | Varied Celluloid

Bird People in China

Posted by On July - 10 - 2008
This review was originally written between 2003-2006 and has since been slightly edited. The opinion remains the same as the original posting, but slight errors have been revised or smoothed out.

Plot Outline: Wada, a Japanese Salaryman is sent on a job to survey a Chinese village for a strain of Jade that his company is interested in. On the way though he meets up with a Yakuza collector named Ujjie who wants the money from the jade for his organization. The two set out with their trusty guide Shen and together they look to find this mysterious village. They travel through forests, on rafts and endure many hardships along the way to find this wonderful land. However once they are there they discover aspects of themselves never before seen, and ultimately debate whether or not they should even leave.


  

The Review: At the time I originally wrote out my review for Bird People in China, of which I have cannibalized in some ways to make this newer version, I was a less experienced viewer with the world of Miike – and a much less experienced writer to boot. Looking back it’s almost embarrassing to see my foaming at the mouth over such things that now seem so trivial to me in Takashi Miike’s work. I just couldn’t seem to get over the fact that what Bird People in China is, happens to be so drastically different from the rest of his films. After having sat through films like Sabu, The Guys From Paradise or even the last two entries in the Black Society Trilogy – such a simple fact is now second nature. Looking back with the eyes of a viewer who might not be as experienced with this filmmakers work or even someone who has their doubts about Takashi Miike (whether he is anything more than a simple exploitive hack); the naive outlook may actually work best. The unbridled enthusiasm I seemed to have over such a semi-obvious fact about this director, although not written in the clearest way, actually reminded me exactly why I am so in awe of his work and why I love movies in the first place. If you walk into Bird People in China with the same circumstances as I likely did, having only seen his more popular work (Audition, Dead or Alive, Fudoh, Ichi the Killet, etc.) then you should set your mind to be accepting to just about anything. The film marks such a departure from those previously mentioned films that the drastic change may knock your glasses off. Bird People in China is certainly one of the most earnest and poignant films Takashi Miike has ever made in my opinion. He takes his usual disposition of outsiders searching for happiness, but ultimately gives them their happiness and lets them run their own course from there. What they choose to do with it, and what experiences they bring with them are where the heart and moral of the story lies. It’s Miike’s infatuation with foreigners and outsiders in a strange land put to it’s full capacity, and that alone makes it one of the most important films I have ever seen of his. Miike delivers an honest and emotional story that some directors could only hope to achieve through years of commitment to a project or idea, but he no doubt did it in record time. It’s the sort of film that stands out in any director’s filmography, but among Miike’s category of films, I think it stands even taller. It shows his versatility while telling a story, and focuses highly on visuals and features only one minor scene of violence. The characters are all of a particular depth and sense of humor, built layer by layer. It’s surprisingly not one of Miike’s most popular works. It of course has it’s fans, plenty have seen it through bootleg copies floating around and it’s been written about quite often, but it still doesn’t have the popularity of his other more action-oriented films. Regardless, if I have to recommend one film made by Miike that fits in with his more deliberately paced works, Bird People in China is the one.

Miike is known for his dark humor, often times in those other “more action-oriented” films I mentioned above, but here he delivers a comic film with a lighter tone than what some might expect. Needless to say, he makes it work spectacularly. The film is funny, but it never feels like it’s a set up for different gags. I once read someone call the first half of the film a ‘buddy comedy’ and while this may be somewhat true, I think that kind of simplifies the whole relationship between the characters. When you use a title like buddy comedy while writing, you’re going to belittle the material due to the Hollywood version of that genre, which is toppled by clichés. This film, while it may have some cliches itsel, they aren’t quite so obvious and are subtle enough that the audience likely won’t even notice them. If I were going to even attempt to label Bird People, I would probably think of it as more of a drama/comedy. The relationship between Wada and Ujjie, which is where the majority of the laughs arise out of Ujjie’s stubborn bullying, is a complex device in the film. The way the two change during the course of events works as a reminder to the audience of just how far these two have come, and placing the two together helps paint the other with more color as things move along. The characters really do compliment each other, as each shows who they are through progression, change and their own dependancy on one another. It’s a simple thing, yes, but an important one I find. Ujjie’s change during the latter half of the film is probably the most drastic, but in a way it isn’t. The feelings, doubts and insecurities he once had in Japan travel along with him for the ride. So, escaping Japan ultimately isn’t the answer to the problems either of our characters face. Their battle is one they have to wage with themselves and Ujjie in particular displays this due to his arnory attitude. With Miike it’s rare to sit down with a film of his that is going to leave you feeling positive about the universe, and although Bird People in China surely isn’t naive to the darker and more brutal facts of life, it’s a focus on the things that are beautiful and the reasons we keep on going. All found in a small village somewhere in China.

As far as technical points go, there are shots in Bird People, where it’s almost impossible to believe what you’re looking at isn’t a painting. The sights are that amazing and I find myself thinking of the title image, a mountain clouded in fog with the word “The Bird People in China” emblazoned on the screen. The image may very well have been a painting, I don’t know, but the incredible beauty shown throughout the rest of the film makes me wonder all the more about it’s origins and where such peaks could ever be found. Miike uses the landscape to it’s most impressive degrees, with characters sometimes standing above the most beautiful forests or mountains you could possible imagine – with a yellowish filter on the camera that just accentuates the oddity that this untouched beauty evokes. It probably sounds like I’m over-doing the descriptions, but trust me, this film is the only thing that has ever actually made me really want to vacation in China. The natural beauty present in nearly every frame after the first thirty minutes or so is completely breathtaking, and it becomes understandable how the leads could think of spending the rest of their days surrounded by such wonders. Another trait of the film I enjoyed, although it’s not quite as noticeable as the cinematography, is the amazing use of editing throughout the film. There’s just so much going on from the beginning to end. There’s a constant flow to the film, from the very beginning with the first words uttered over the opening dialogue about dreams to the concluding epilogue. In my opinion, there’s a beat to the film and it never loses its pace, even when running through the backstory for the audience. Everything just blends together into something consistent and ever-growing. It’s one of the few films where the editor really makes me stand up and take attention, and it’s not really even a flashy job on the film. The actors on board are equally as impressive to all the other technical crew. Masahiro Motoki (some may know him from his role in the also fantastic Gonin) puts in a low-key, but gradually layered, performance as Wada the salaryman. At first he keeps up his continually bullied persona, but being away from the city long enough, at some point the character grows and becomes a real man. A real human being. Motoki puts in his all and shows how diverse he can be. He’s certainly a talented, and somewhat under-appreciated Japanese actor who I hope to some day see in many more films. Renji Ishibashi, a popular Miike regular, puts in what transforms from a very obvious Yakuza cliché into a much deeper and complex character throughout the film, and is probably the strongest actor on board. His bullying changes into something more understanding, more human and he becomes this completely lovable character along the way. His ultimate flaws come from his own nature built inside of him and leads him on a path to destruction. The performance comes from nowhere, and shows Ishibashi as a highly skilled professional and more than just a genre staple, or a ‘tough-guy’ just to throw around.



The Conclusion
There’s a lot more to say about Bird People, and it’s a shame I’m probably not the one to do it. No film is without their own flaws, and this may seem like endless rantings of an obsessive fanboy, but the film fills me with so much positive energy in discussion that it’s hard to pick apart it’s faults. The pace may be too slow for some audiences, the use of digital effects in some scenes might distract select viewers, but for my personal opinion there’s nothing I would change about the film. Of all of Miike’s dramas I have seen, it’s likely the best and says so much for him as a director that to miss out on it would be a crime. If you consider yourself an admirer of Takashi Miike, there’s no excuse forgivable for missing this film.



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Varied Celluloid is a film website intent on delivering views on movies from all genres. Started in 2003, the website has been steadfast in its goal and features a database of over 500 lengthy reviews. If you would like to contact us about writing for the website or sending screeners, please visit the about page located here.

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