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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.

In the Mood for Love Review

Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love artfully shows the lives of two people, Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan, dealing with the fact that their respective spouses are unfaithful and, in doing so, create a romance of their own.  Fidelity and infidelity, appropriateness and impropriety, and romanticism and realism are all contrasted in this movie.

Both Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan are played by incredibly attractive actors, Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung, and almost every shot in the movie accentuates this.  Mrs. Chan goes through several stunningly tailored cheongsam dresses that show off her remarkable figure and Mr. Chow looks like the personification of masculinity in his suits.

The saturated color of the shots, along with the lighting and framing of the actors, only add to the sensuality of the film.  The heightened sexuality of scenes with these two main characters shot in slow motion to a non-diagetic song which gives them an almost dream-like quality.  These are starkly contrasted to multiple scenes in the pouring rain or when the characters are eating dinner together that bring the movie back to more realistic terms when that dreamlike sense is broken.  The camera returning to a more natural shot, paired with the silence, juxtapose other moments in the film.

Even though their spouses are unfaithful, Chow and Chan are still concerned with propriety.  They don’t want to be seen spending too much time together, even if they are simply collaborating for Chow’s work.  They even go so far as to camp out in a room together because Mrs. Chan does not want to give the wrong impression  This is a direct contrast to their partners, shown by the fact that Mr. Chan doesn’t even bother to buy two different handbags for his wife and his lover, who are neighbors.

The songs show the more ambiguous or gray elements of relationships. One of these songs, sung in Spanish, repeats the phrase “quizás, quizás, quizás” which is translated to mean “perhaps.”  Throughout the movie, Chow and Chan explore the possibilities of how their spouses began their affair, perhaps this is how their spouses got together; as well as the possibilities in their relationship, perhaps this will when their relationship finally blossoms.  These scenes can either be the turning point when a relationship becomes something more or when the characters pull away for the sake of propriety.  The whole question of “perhaps” resonates throughout all of their interactions.

Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love shows the journey of two characters dealing with unfaithful relationships.  These relationships are defined by their ambiguity, shown through music and the characters’ own reluctance to consummate any form of a relationship.  They are further defined by the contrast between the heights of romance and the harshness of reality.  The technical elements of the film served to show and reinforce these themes in the relationships.

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

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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.

My Sassy Girl Film Review

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    Garnering various accolades for being a standout in the genre romantic comedy, My Sassy Girl entreats the audience to the comical story about the goofy play-boy wannabe named Kyun-woo and his erratic, tumultuous relationship with his tough-skinned, aggressive girlfriend, who is referred to as The Girl. Released in 2001 in South Korea, My Sassy Girl originated from a series of online blog posts detailing the romance of a couple who met in unexpected circumstances in the metro station in South Korea. Directed by Kwak Jae-yong, the film is known for the combined acting of its celebrity actor and actress Cha Tae-hyun and Jun Ji-hyun who play Kyun-woo and The Girl, respectively. Having much international success, especially in countries in East Asia, the movie boosted their careers and inspired remakes of the film in several other countries: U.S., Japan, India, and China.

    Given the dual nature of romantic comedy as a hybrid genre, the audience can expect to see an eclectic mix of different themes playing together. Being in a relationship with the stubborn Girl, Kyun-woo constantly finds himself in situations in which The Girl subverts gender roles and putting him in embarrassing situations. While constantly ending up in comically ridiculous situations, Kyun-woo continuously perseveres in his role as The Girl’s boyfriend, jumping through hoops for her to be happy. In one instance, The Girl subverts the gender roles by guilt-tripping Kyun-woo into wearing her high heels while she wears his sneakers, emasculating him as he chases The Girl past groups of students and through an ongoing baseball game at his own university. Throughout the film, he comically ends up in prison surrounded by gangsters several times and as a hostage of a renegade soldier of the South Korean army. In each situation, he depends on the movie’s heroine The Girl to rescue him.

    Besides exploring subverted gender roles, the movie dabbles with the theme of fantasy and time. In various scenes, The Girl and Kyun-woo will adopt the heroine and the secondary acting roles, respectively, in the various screenwrites created by The Girl. While some of these fantasy stories may take place in a sci-fi world or an ancient Korean peninsula, the heroine’s character is always from the future, evoking the theme of time. Time becomes associated with transformation for the sake of growth as the movie progresses as exemplified by Kyun-woo. While he struggles and perseveres in being the boyfriend that The Girl needs by playing a secondary role to the film’s heroine, Kyun-woo shows his best qualities through his desire to compliment The Girl’s personality while improving himself throughout the story’s progression. These key moments when Kyun-woo takes the spotlight show the romantic side of the film–as the camera captures a continuous shot of his monologue, we see significant growth in him as a character through how he becomes sensitive to The Girl, making her a priority and a responsibility.

    After seeing My Sassy Girl, the audience will enjoy a unique viewing experience–one that inspired similar films that cannot compare to the original. Through the various themes expressed in role reversals and romantic moments, the audience will enjoy this hybrid drama in which they will share the happy and sad moments in the characters’ lives while laughing at the same time.

Shiri Movie Review

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“Shiri” is a South Korean film released in 1999 from director Kang Je-gyu. This film, which was released immediately after South Korea’s rapid economic growth in the 1990’s, was a direct response to the Hollywood action films that were popularized in the 1980’s. In addition to containing all of the major elements of a Blockbuster action flick (such as superfluous shootouts where the protagonist remains miraculously unharmed), there are distinct elements to it that show it to be Korean at its core. Yu Jong-won (Han Suk-kyu) is a South Korean agent whose current task is to find the infamous North Korean spy Lee Bang-hee (Yunjin Kim) who has already assassinated a number of key South Korean political figures. She is also a member of a rogue North Korean military unit who has determined to reunite North and South Korea by any means necessary. Yu and his partner Lee Jang-gil (Song Kang-ho) must search for the information that will help them discover where Hee is hiding before her organization can carry out its most devastating attack. The rogue North Korean envoy manages to obtain a liquid explosive known as CTX, which at rest is indistinguishable from water. This liquid is extremely dangerous however, and at the right temperatures for the right amount of time can annihilate a large area or city property. The rogue agents intend to use this weapon at a friendly soccer match between the North and South Korean soccer teams, as the major political figures from each country will be in attendance. It quickly becomes a race against time as Yu and Lee search for information about Hee, her commander Park Mu-young (Choi Min-sik) and the location of their devastating bombs.

            One of the major flaws with this movie is the extent of the gunfights and how frequently they occur. What makes it so ludicrous is that the protagonists Yu and Lee, while they are present at almost every single gunfight in the movie, seem to have an uncanny ability to avoid being hit by bullets. Even during the films more extensive gunfights when bullets are flying at the same level of a blizzard, the major characters are not injured for the majority of the movie (the bullets are so extensive, one would assume that even death by friendly fire would be a huge threat).

The running undertones of the movie help aide the movie in its aim to carry a significant plot. The antagonists, albeit misguided, wish to have the divide between the Koreas healed and become one nation again. There is one other significant appearance of the theme of unity, but it plays an important part in the ending (which I will not reveal). Another admirable theme is the idea of love and loyalty. Throughout the film Yu is attempting to remain as focused on his mission as possible. However he is also concerned for the safety of his fiancé, which is another major subplot throughout the film. Additionally, the antagonists always seem to know what the police force will do next, and the police begin to turn against each other out of suspicion. Their loyalties to each other are tested as each agent attempts to protect their interests and their lives.

            Overall the film is obviously heavily influenced by American Blockbuster action films, which might make it seem repetitive and unoriginal to an American viewer. However there are positive qualities to the film that occasionally shine through and help to make the film as engaging as possible. The final scene especially is full of tension an thrills, but many viewers are already so tired of the repetition of stagnant action that they may have already lost interest. This movie is definitely most fit for an audience of action die-hard fans who don’t mind the slight lack of depth to the characters and plot.

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Film Review: Hero

Hero is another in a long line of wuxia films to come out of China. Wuxia translates to martial hero, with wuxia films featuring the adventures of such martial artists and heroes. In particular the martial artists of wuxia films, and in Hero, are capable of surreal and supernatural feats. Such feats include but are not limited to flying through the air, running across water, and leaping through the branches of trees as if they weighed no more than a feather. Directed by Zhang Yimou, famous for prior films such as Raise the Red Lantern (1992) and Red Sorghum (1987), Hero is based off of a real assassination attempt in Chinese history and features an all-star cast. Jet Li, famous worldwide for his roles in various action movies, plays the part of Nameless, the nameless protagonist who is ironically named Nameless for his namelessness. Tony Leung, famous primarily in China for his roles in movies such as Infernal Affairs (2002), In the Mood for Love (2000), and Happy Together (1997), plays the part of Broken Sword, one of three assassins at the focal point of the film. Maggie Cheung, another actress famous primarily in China, plays the part of Flying Snow, another one of the three assassins. Finally Donnie Yen, now famous largely for his role as Ip Man in Ip Man (2009), plays the part of Sky, the third assassin.

Unique to Hero is its extravagent use of color within the film. What makes this even more impressive is how naturally the colors exist in the world of Hero, standing out but at the same never emphasized. The film moves seamlessly through dreary black of the King of Qin’s palace, to the bright lucky red of Zhao, to the blue of the King of Qin’s impression, to the white of truth. Just as the colors of the film change, the colors of characters’ costumes and the the scenery itself, so does the audience see the events the film play out several different times with alternating twists.

These twists lead the audience through a series of viewpoints that can affect their perception of the film’s title itself, Hero. Although Nameless is the film’s protagonist, whether or not he is the martial hero to this wuxia film is a theme played upon by Zhang Yimou. This is a theme set by the very beginning of the film, where a message appears across the screen to the audience:

“People give up their lives for many reasons. For friendship, for love, for an ideal. And people kill for the same reasons… In any war there are heroes on both sides…”

This quote (only a part of the complete message given at the beginning of the film) immediately raises the question of what exactly makes a hero, and to whom. People are willing to fight for friendship, love, and ideals, whether that fighting leads to their own death or the deaths of others. Who then, is right in the end, who is the real hero?

If you’re looking for a concrete answer to that question, you may not find what you’re looking for in Hero, but the message the film does provide is still something more than worth consideration, and with the film itself holding the title of highest-grossing film in Chinese film history, it’s well worth a watch.

A Wedding Invitation

Qiao Qiao and Li Xing

When Qiao Qiao (played by Bai Baihe) wants to break up because Li Xing (Eddie Peng) cannot afford to pay for the wedding and lifestyle of her dreams, a frustrated Li Xing eventually acquiesces.  They draw up a contract stating that if both are still single after five years, then they will reunite and get married.  Fast-forward five years and Qiao Qiao still loves Li Xing, but Li Xing tells her that he’s getting married.  Qiao Qiao is jealous and tries to win him over before it’s too late.  So far, it plays out like a fairly standard romantic comedy.  But hints begin to appear that indicate Qiao Qiao’s reason for breaking up with Li Xing runs far deeper than monetary insecurity.

A Wedding Invitation is 2013 Chinese film directed by Oh Ki Hwan and adapted from the Oh-directed Last Present.  It also features a Korean editor and composer, a Chinese cast and setting, and Chinese, Korean, and Hong Kong producers.  This film is but one example of the growing popularity of co-Asian productions, which manage to invigorate genre conventions with a unique cultural mash-up.  A Wedding Invitation’s plot evokes several recurring contrivances of the romance genre- the contract relationship, the misunderstanding caused by lack of communication, and the guilt and self-sacrifice for a lover.  However, its unique Chinese cultural twist to a conventional Korean story help it stand out.

A Wedding Invitation is a very aesthetically attractive film.  It is shot in the high-rises of Beijing and Shanghai and the cinematography is bathed in bright, saturated colors.  Gleaming light reflects off the modern, cleverly designed buildings.  The characters’ costuming is colorful and stylish and their apartments are modern and chic, showcasing their enviously fashionable lives.  Particular attention is paid to food, as Li Xing is a chef and Qiao Qiao enjoys eating and critiquing his meals.   His dishes are both generously displayed and explained onscreen.  The film could almost serve as a channel to promote tourism to China.

Bai Baihe and Eddie Peng also elevate the film and convincingly sell their characters.  Qiao Qiao’s actions could be seen as frustrating and unrealistic, but Bai gives the character such heart that you can’t help but root for her anyway.  Her pain and turmoil is palpable with just the right amount of subtlety.  Peng sometimes tends towards overselling his emotions during big scenes, but effectively pulls heartstrings during quieter moments.  His love for Qiao Qiao really shines through in the gentle look in his expressive eyes.  Overall, they had great chemistry together, which is crucial in making a successful romantic movie.

Probably the biggest drawback of A Wedding Invitation is the trite coverage of the major themes- death and grief.  This film does nothing to explore a new facet of these themes, which dominate nearly every romantic drama.  Li Xing realizes what really happened five years ago, leading to a trail of guilt, regret, and disbelief that ends in accepting the truth.  He fights through his tears and does his best for Qiao Qiao, both in front of her and behind the scenes.  He secretly cooks food for her while she’s staying at the hospital to provide her a simple comfort and later gives her a heart-rending proposal.

The only uniqueness of the story is the mash-up of two disparate tones and genres, the romantic drama and the romantic comedy.  The jarring shift in tone made for a confusing viewing experience when the laughter quickly disappeared, never to return.   But the gradual reveal of tragedy hidden beneath the feel-good comedy did lend another distinctive variation to the film.  So while A Wedding Invitation can be seen as a spectacle of genre clichés, it can also be a spectacle of positive factors- a visual spectacle, a spectacle of heart-tugging acting,  and a spectacle of larger-than-life emotional eccentricities that nevertheless have connections in reality.