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Bird People in China (Miike Takashi 1998)


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Bird People in China
[Chugoku no chojin]

Genre: Contemporary Fairy-Tale

review in one breath

Bird People in China is truly one of Miike's best films. Director Miike Takashi has always been a master of exaggeration and most notoriously so in the areas of extreme violence and sexuality. Here, however, he utilizes exaggeration in an utterly unique manner and leads audiences to an intersection of gritty realism and dream-like mythology. Though Bird People in China starts in rather familiar territory for Miike fans, with violent Yakuza lurking in the shadows, it soon departs from his characteristic formula and travels instead to the idyllic mountainous landscapes of remote China. There, far removed from the bustle of the city, Miike not only allows his characters to be completely transformed amid nature's grandeur and the smiles of gentle villagers, but also wraps the entire narrative within an ancient, inspiring mythology.


Through skillful exaggeration, Miike convincingly raises realism to the level of fairy-tale, bringing audiences to the blurred line between the real and fantasy. But bringing audiences to this brink is merely a means to Miike's ultimate goal of demonstrating to modern audiences the traditional beauty and meaningfulness irreplaceably preserved within ancient imaginations. Miike then unpacks this impressive revelation into a morality tale of cultural and environmental importance.

story

When his co-worker is suddenly hospitalized, the low-level salaryman, Wada (Motoki Masahiro), is sent to replace him in the search and negotiation for high quality jade. This requires Wada to pack his bags and leave the metropolis of Tokyo for the remote Chinese province of Yun Nan, where the broad Yangtze river flows between cliffs of sheer rock. Once in China, Wada must rely upon Shen (Iwamatsu Mako, aka Jimmy Sakuyama), the hired guide, as they traverse incredibly rough terrain in all manner of out-dated and dilapidated vehicles. From the moment he stepped foot on the mainland, however, Wada has been closely followed by Ujiie (Ishibashi Renji), a rough and tumble yakuza sent to keep an eye on any jade transaction. It's not long until Ujiie has invited himself into Wada's traveling group and they are all sharing the misery of their travels.

To say that the trip from civilization to the prospective jade vein is difficult would be an extreme understatement. Not only does the road abruptly stop at the banks of the raging Yangtze River, but entire mountains must be climbed on foot, through shockingly fierce and torrential storms which vanish as quickly as they appear. This is only the beginning of their arduous trek, which will go on to include a most bizarre method of travel upstream and an unfortunate aftermath of unwittingly ingesting hallucinogenic toadstools. (!!)

They do, however, eventually arrive at the village and there find not only a fabulously lucrative vein of highest quality jade, but also a most unusual local myth involving the belief in bird people. A local school, run by a blue-eyed Chinese girl, continues to train the village's young children in the methods handed down to her by her deceased grandfather, a man, local legend insists, came from the sky. Wada and Ujiie seem not only captivated by the myth, but soon discover clues pointing to its possible origin and truth. Surrounded by the magnificent beauty of their terrain, their thoughts of the lucrative profits awaiting their exploitation of the jade vein soon give way to whole-hearted exploration of the myth and its meaning for the local culture.

When the time comes for their departure back to Tokyo in order to report the business opportunities discovered, both Wada and Ujiie must face their inner dilemma brought about by their time on the mountain.

verdict (possible spoilers)

This film is wonderfully inspiring and entertaining. I found myself convinced that I was watching a contemporary fable, by which I mean a tale which does not ground in realism. Miike skillfully lifts this story's gritty beginning into what seems like an entirely different genre, that of a fantasy-laden fairy-tale or fable. But in fact, upon looking back, there is no such departure from realism. The entire sensation I experienced is generated solely by Miike's extraordinary story-telling skills and nothing else. His ability to cause you to see realism through the lens of fantasy is truly what this film is all about. And once Miike has captured your imagination's attention, he then aptly demonstrates how imagination can easily be the source of wiser decisions than mere rationality.

I can highly recommend Bird People in China as a unique adventure into imaginative mythology and stunning scenery. The storyline is entertaining and comedic throughout, but truly crescendos in its conclusion.

cultural interest violence sex strangeness
Miike's dream-like scenery is matched only by a storyline which skillfully blurs reality and the mythological. Some depicted gun violence which pales in comparison to the steps taken in making turtle soup. Our blue-eyed China girl remains covered in village garb from head to toe. This film skillfully elevates reality to the level of fable and then packs a whallop.

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