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The Bird People in China, Movie Review

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The Bird People in China, directed by Takashi Miike, is a film highlighting natural beauty outside of modern civilization and reflects on the conflicts that occur when merging modern developments and cultural traditions in human society. The movie portrays people from developed Japanese society learning to live life in pristine Yunnan province. The movie raises a question: should society give up its traditions to enjoy the benefits of modern life?

The Bird People in China moves away from the typically violent movies of director Takashi Miike and focuses on the beauty of nature and personal reflection. Miike is most famous for his extremely violent gangster movies, for example Ichi the Killer, which is banned in some countries. While The Bird People in China moves away from the violent style, it shares with his other movies with its unusual plots and bizarre scenes.

The movie is about an adventure in Yunan province, the remote South West region in China, for three main characters: the businessman Wada, the gangster Ujiie and the tour guide Shen. Wada is ordered by his Japanese company to search for a vein of jade in a remote village of Yunan province. Ujiie is also sent by his gangster boss to supervise Wada, making sure Wada’s company will be able to pay the money they owed his boss. As they move further and further away from civilization and modern society, they struggle to adapt to the hostile environment during the long journey. They are brought to a small remote village, where people live in innocence and have the belief that humans can fly. There is a girl who hosts a “flying school” and teaches young children the tradition of flying from her grandfather. The title, The Bird People in China, comes from this mysterious belief in flying.

While Wada is trying to understand the reason behind the mystery in the village, Ujiie truly enjoys his new life in the village away from modernity. Ujiie wants to protect the tradition of the villagers and prevent it from being tampered with by modern society. In the end, Ujiie does not want Wada and the tour guild Shen to leave the village and reveal it to modern society. Even though Wada has good intentions, to use modernity and technology to help this remote area develop, Ujiie thinks they will exploit the village’s natural resource and that the invasion of a modern lifestyle will have irreversible consequences for the traditional lifestyle in the village.

This story’s setting is among the beautiful mountains of Yunnan province. There are many long distance shots in the movie. Because of this long distance, we are able to see the full landscape of the village and enjoy the views of this gorgeous area in a wide screen. We enjoy the blue sky, white clouds and green mountains. The setting and camera shots further emphasize the innocent nature and the beauty of the area. The movies seem to tell us that all of this natural beauty is so gorgeous that it is worth being preserved.

The movie, made in 1998, is based during China’s transition from the traditional rural society to industrialization. In the 1990s, Chinese society was relatively stable and the government focused on economic development and improving people’s standard of living. The government adopted reforms and an opening-up policy, which attracted foreign investments in natural resources. Also, the economic development spread beyond the urban areas and moved to the rural areas. This explains why the Japanese businessmen are in the remote area of China searching for the vein of jade. The drive for economic growth comes at the cost of nature, environment and tradition. Apparently, the government at that time was not aware of the danger of this unsustainable development. The director is trying to sound an alarm for Chinese society as well as other developing countries. Economic development and modernity will definitely benefit the people and improving their standard of living exponentially, however, it always comes with the cost of losing traditions. People will completely change their previous lifestyles, beliefs and value systems. It is like a tradeoff, and it is hard to achieve a balance and decide which approach is better.

The beautiful nature and traditions are definitely valuable, but the question is how we should preserve it. The movie takes an objective view towards the conflict between traditional and modern society. The theme of the movie is showed through the characters’ personal experiences and reflections. Wada is trying to reveal the mystery of the village through his own technique and reasoning. He is using his tape recorder to record the song from the “flying girl” and uses his electronic dictionary to translate her words. In contrast, Ujiie is fully integrated into the village himself. He enjoys being with the villagers and kids and tries to understand their lives. In the end, he is determined to protect the village from modern society. In their final encounter, Wada and Ujiie come to blows about which approach the village should take. Wada believes that they should allow technology and modernity to improve people’s lives, while at the same time protecting the tradition. Ujiie believes it is not possible because of human nature and the tradition should stay away from modernity. At the end, the movie did not indicate which approach is correct and let the viewers reflect on this common conflict in today’s society.

The Bird People in China is a fairytale-like story that shows the natural beauty and traditions of an innocent Chinese village in Yunan province. Through the characters’ experiences and personal reflections, we understand the value of preserving this beautiful region. Moreover, the movie raises a question about whether or not modernity should play a role in this protection. While the movie does not fully answer that question, it makes us reflect on how should human interact with tradition and nature.

Spring in a Small Town Review

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Spring in a Small Town, which is recognized as one of the best movies throughout Chinese history, has won worldwide fame and recognition. This complicated emotional movie portrays the conflict between traditional morality and personal happiness. The small focused look into a love triangle reflects the society as a whole and is a metaphor for the conflict for the  Chinese culture between old and new.

Fei Mu is the most famous pre -1949 communist revolution film director in China. Spring in the Small Town was produced in 1948 and marked the peak of his movie career. Spring in the Small Town has a strong focus on personal emotion, feeling, and characters. Also, its triangle love story challenged the social value and morality at that time. The movie was not famous immediately because communist party banned the movie. However, the movie was rediscovered later on and received wide recognition domestically and internationally.

The movie is about a triangle love story between three main characters, Liyan Dai, Yuwen Zhou and Zhichen Zhang. Liyan and Yuwen have married for eight years throughout the Second Sino-Japanese War. However, there are no love feelings in their marriage, and Liyan has been seriously sick. Therefore, Yuwen takes a role of serving him instead of considering him the person whom she loves. They lead a hopeless and routine life. Everything changes when Zhichen, Yuwen’s previous lover and Liyan’s good friend, has an unexpected visit to the home. Yuwen’s love and hope seems triggered by her memory of Zhichen. However, still a wife for his sick husband Liyan, she is in great agony since her pursuit of love with Zhichen conflicts with her traditional morality to her husband.

The movie is in the special period of Chinese history, right after the Second Sino-Japanese War and before the civil war. The whole society and infrastructure was in ruin after the eight-year long war period. However, people started to have some hope to lead new lives. Also, as the society advanced from the emergence of western economy and development, modern beliefs started to impact the society on a large scale. They were merging into people’s deeply rooted traditional Confucius culture. Liyan represents the old belief and traditional Chinese society with his stand as a master in a house with an old servant. Zhichen is considered the new hope for China: energetic, healthy and westernized. However, Yuwen is kind of in between, who wants to pursue her happiness with her modern thoughts but is still tied in her old belief of morality. Yuwen’s dilemma denotes the conflict between old and new after the end of Sino-Japnaness War.

The movie interestingly takes an objective standpoint for this sensitive love triangle situation between Liyan Dai, Yuwen Zhou and Zhichen Zhang. There is no right or wrong for different characters. The objective view of director greatly challenges the ideology of the society and is considered brave and groundbreaking by the general public. The whole theme of the movie is about conflicts between the morality and personal happiness for Yuwen. On one hand, Yuwen wants her true love, Zhichen, in life. On the other hand, Yuwen wants to still have responsibility for the family and her husband. Which is right? The director is trying to be objective, because both point of view has a cultural implication and cannot be judged right or wrong.

The director is trying to enable the viewer to reflect with his closed distance shoot and slow pace. Throughout the movie,  Fei Mu carefully uses a medium close-up shoot technique for the characters at a really close distance. From the short distance, we can clearly see the characters’ emotion and facial expression. The camera always stays static for a couple of seconds for the medium close-up shoot. From the slow pace, we can see the characters’ emotion. Actually, the whole movie is slow in pace, giving us plenty of time to carefully observe the scene and reflect on situation. The viewer can peacefully enjoy the movie and follow the train of thought of the characters.

As one of the most famous and influential movie in the Chinese history, Spring in a Small Town shows its special beauty from its slow pace and strong emotion. History, culture, love, hope, responsibility, morality and many other aspects all mix into this triangle love story and enable the viewer to reflect on the characters and the society as a whole.

Reference:

Baidu Baike. Baidu, n.d.. Web. March 1, 2014. Feimu (early movie director). (费穆(中国早期电影导演)
http://baike.baidu.com/subview/305323/7812810.htm?fr=aladdin

Baidu Baike. Baidu, n.d.. Web. March 1, 2014. Spring in a Small Town (1948 Fei Mudirected movie).(小城之春(1948年费穆执导电影))
http://baike.baidu.com/subview/305323/7812810.htm?fr=aladdin