The Bird People in ChinaThe Bird People in China is a marked change of pace for director Takashi Miike, usually famous for his dabbling in ultra-violence. Compared to his usual work, this film is relatively tame. Following a Japanese businessman Wada and his companions: Yakuza Ujiie and guide Shen as the trio travels to a remote Chinese village in search of precious jade. The film follows the well-worn path of the road movie, with the meat of the film being about our intrepid trio interacting and getting into wacky hi-jinks, though the film takes a sharp turn in the second half when the group actually arrives at their destination. Once at the village the film adopts a more serious tone and begins to discuss the best way to both preserve a unique way of life without isolating it from advances of the modern world
Masahiro Motoki plays our straight-man Wada, an overworked salary man sent over to inspect some jade mines. He spends the first half the movie being exasperated by the antics of his companions, especially Ujiie. Still, the two form what could be called a friendship by the end, and Motoki does a good job and keeping a straight face while his friends muck about. His arc, like Ujiie’s, picks up once they arrive at the village. Wada becomes fascinated by their culture, having little contact with the outside world or its technology, and sets about trying to gather as much information about them as he can, forgoing his original mission. As the film shifts focus, Wada becomes a moderating figure, seeking to calm Ujiie’s diminishing sanity and bring his friend back from the brink. He is also instrumental in the finale of the film, which forges a bold path between progress and preservation when it comes to modernization.
Ujiie (Renji Ishibashi) on the other hand, opens up the film as an oafish buffoon, who is quick to anger and quick to violence. Most of his abuse towards his compatriots is played for laughs, containing all the hallmarks of slapstick: exaggerated sound effects, reactions, and little permanent damage. Still, Miike’s influence can still be felt, as some of his assaults veer too close to actual beatings, which robs some scenes of their comedic impact, and occasionally made me a tad uncomfortable. It appears Miike might have had some trouble toning down his violence to a more light-hearted degree, though the choice pays off later in the film. Once the group arrives, Ujiie becomes enamored with the villagers and their life. He becomes the representative for the well-intention ed who wish to preserve a culture by denying it contact with the outside world. He acts as a criticism of these people as he slowly resorts to more violent and destructive measure to “protect” the village. I won’t spoil how his arc ends, but it’s an interesting situation with an ending that’s actually quite surprising.
But all this belabors the biggest problem (yet it’s most critical component) the film, and that’s the shift in tone between its two halves. The first half is just a road-trip comedy. Antics are had and hi-jinks ensue while seeing the beautiful Chinese countryside. It’s charming and silly and lighthearted. Then they get to the village. The movie becomes a much more serious film, focusing on the dilemma of what to do with the village, as the protagonists grow to care for it and must decide how to balance their need to do their job and protect what they feel is an important culture. It was a little jarring for me personally, but that could just be a personal issue. However, this clash is absolutely necessary, as the finale hinges upon Ujiie and Wada’s relationship, which needed the road-trip portion to occur to be believable. It’s an interesting dichotomy. I acknowledge that it was a necessary choice for the point Miike wanted to make in the end, I just feel that it maybe could have been handled better.
I would also be remiss to mention the scenery. This film takes place in some stunning locations, and the road-trip portion acts as a wonderful commercial for China Tours. The film truly emphasizes the natural aesthetics of the region, as the trio moves further away from the urban sprawl and nature begins to reclaim more of the area. This helps reinforce the theme of preservation vs. progress, clearly illustrating the natural impact of modernization and the way it affects the environment. The editing aids this effect. Yasushi Shimamura (Editor) and Miike deserve credit for further underlining the differences between the modernized Japan and the traditional China. The film utilizes quick edits and up close shots in the bustling Japan, but shots become longer and less choppy the farther they get, culminating in some stunning sweeping shots of the Yunnan province that capture the immensity of what Ujiie and Wada are trying to protect.
Overall The Bird People in China is a solid film that takes Miike out of his usual comfort zone and manages to make a compelling argument for a middle ground between preservation and progress, as well as being a visual treat at times. Barring the strange tonal shift, it’s an enjoyable film and nice addition Miike’s library.