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.