Category Archives: Bird People of China

A Review of The Bird People in China: My Youth Restored

By Austin Lieber                                                                                      June 9th, 2014

Takashi Miike directed the unpredicted movie of 1998, Bird People in China, to near perfection. This film is well suited for the East Asian Cinema enthusiast as well as any other individual looking for a fantasy-based adventure. This film, however, stray’s from his typical style of directing, as Takashi is known for violent and intense action. Miike’s intent with this film, meanwhile, was to make it into a semi-fantasy adventure, a new direction for the 38-year-old Chinese director. He succeeded in turning the plot of this movie into an almost fairytale of an adventure, one that places the audience member right in the backseat of their broken van. The focus of the movie was indirectly on the villagers of Yunan province, but the main plot centers around two individuals from Japan: Mr. Ujiie and Mr. Wada. They are two businessmen on a trip to find a vein of jade in China.

His overall use of medium long and long shots, as well as what he decided to keep in the frame throughout the movie, were effective in creating a convincing story. The setting throughout the story was accentuated by his use of longer shots. While keeping the main characters in focus at a distance, Takashi reveals more of the setting for the audience. This only further underscores the exotic and seemingly magical trip the characters are on. Furthermore, Miike only kept rural settings within the frame, making sure to disappear any modernization that might be present.

Miike focuses the first half of the film on the adventure these two men go through before they reach the village in China. At each step of the way, Miike uses the setting to create this surrealistic adventure; he displays exotic shots of China, both rural and developed. The further they travel into China, the more exoticism the audience is exposed to.  When the two men and their guides reach the village, tall mountains sticking out of the ground surround them. It is at this point the true adventure begins.

Miike builds the rest of the movie around character growth and development. The original plot is lost and a new one takes its place. This new plot actually becomes the backbone to the lifelong friendship that Mr. Wada and Mr. Ujiie form. Their friendship and life adventure are what make this movie such an effective fantasy. By the end of this movie, I was so far away from the room I was sitting in, that I felt like a kid watching E.T. for the first time.

Miike’s film transported me to a land of fantastical wonderment and possibility. Although this movie was not a gangster-like, violent, intense action movie, Takashi had success with this movie because of how real he makes it feel to the audience. This film is a truly great adventure that I recommend for anyone, especially if you appreciate a film with an exotic and surrealistic plot line.

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.

The Bird People in China, Movie Review


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.