All posts by Zacharia Benalayat

The Bird People in China Review

 

The Bird People in ChinabirdpeopleThe 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.

Tokyo Story

One of Ozu’s famed low-angle shots capturing the faces of Noriko and Shukichi

Tokyo Story is an exceedingly minimalist and personal film directed by legendary Japanese filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu.  Ozu’s particular style is very different from what one would expect of a Hollywood director and his focus in this film seems to be capturing the awkward, uncomfortable feelings between family members who have drifted apart.

The film centers upon an elderly couple, Shukichi(Chishu Ryu) and Tomi (Chieko Higashiyama), as they visit their adult children who have moved to Tokyo.   There is little story development of significance, instead the film is more of a character piece, spending most of its time just showing the characters talk and allow their interactions to drive the film forward.  Ozu wants the audience to notice every wrinkle and subtle facial movement of the characters.  He manages this task by using a “tatami shot” wherein the camera is placed a low angle, mimicking the POV of a person sitting just below the characters.  It also let’s him have far more control over his shot, as the camera is completely stationary for most of the film.

This turns out to be a major boon for the film and the actors; by lingering on their faces Ozu allows his actors use more subtle facial expressions than would be typically be used in a film.  That the actors can convey emotions without exaggeration helps highlight the understated tone of the film.   Tokyo Story is a film that rarely shows the important story beats occur, but instead focuses on the reactions of characters to these off-screen events, making the film more personal.

Now Ozu’s stylistic choices would be worthless if the acting was bad, which it isn’t.  Ryu and Higashiyama turn in very subdued performances, making the audience guess what they are really feeling, but their children the performances can be said to be perfunctory if a bit flat.  Koichi (Sō Yamamura) and Shige (Haruko Sugimura), the eldest children, are largely one note in nature, each is too busy to care for their aging parents.  Because they are so busy, the audience rarely gets the close ups shots that are the film’s biggest strength.  Yamamura and Sugimura do get some chances to shine, albeit briefly, in the latter half of the film.

The real standout among the supporting cast is Setsuko  Hara as the widowed daughter-in-law Noriko.  Hara turns in a masterful performance, and she gets plenty of chances to express complex emotions.  She is smiling throughout the film, but the shots linger long enough for the audience to guess at what the smile truly means, and her facade is fascinating to watch, especially as events wear it down.

The films biggest flaw is that, by and large, nothing happens.  It is a film with an exceedingly small scale attempting to tell an incredibly personal story about the destruction of familial bonds.  This means that film can sometimes fall prey to an overwhelming sense of malaise as the characters do  ordinary things.  This not an edge-of-your seat film.  It is a very slow burn.  If you’re looking for a fast paced film I suggest you look elsewhere.  Tokyo Story absolutely shines as a slow-burn character drama, but you’ve got be ready to do some mental work to understand the characters.  A great film to just sit down and analyze, but if you’re just looking for a fun way to kill a couple of hours this is not the right choice.