The Bird People in China (1998) – By Duane L. Martin

Let me start out this review with a statement that may make many of you fans of Takashi Miike films gasp with astonishment and probably lead you to think I’m insane. I generally don’t like Takashi Miike films. I think his sense of pacing stinks, he uses shocking imagery for no other reason than it’s shock value and his character development just flat out sucks. There, I said it. Now before you go throwing stones at me, let me say this. Despite my general dislike of Takashi Miike’s work, I know a lot of people do like his work and I generally try to focus on the positive as well as the negative when I review his films. My general dislike of his work however should make you understand the magnitude of what I’m going to say next. The Bird People In China is just a flat out brilliant film. Surprised? Well to be honest, so was I. In any case, I watched this film expecting it to be more of the same ol’ Miike, and instead I was presented with a work that was nothing short of magnificent.

The Bird People In China is the story of a Japanese business man named Mr. Wada (Masahiro Motoki) and a yakuza gangster named Mr. Ujiie (Renji Ishibashi) who are thrown together in a quest to find a rich vein of jade in the remote mountains of China. Wada is there to find out if the stories of the quality and amounts of jade that are found in this place are true, and Ujiie is there to make sure the yakuza gets a cut to pay them back for the money the company Wada works for borrowed from them. They are led by a guide named Mr. Shen who was played brilliantly by the legendary Mako. To be honest, I didn’t even recognize that it was Mako until later on in the film, and just the fact that he was in it made me enjoy everything all the more.

After a long and harrowing journey, the three are led to a village high in the mountains that has been virtually isolated for decades. The people of the village live simple lives and the beautiful mountain surroundings make it seem almost like a Utopia. They discover a girl in the village who teaches children how to fly using hand made wings. It was something she learned from her grandfather who was an English pilot that had crashed there many years ago. Both her grandparents and her mother and father had died, and the village elders asked her to keep the school open even though she didn’t really understand all about the wings and the flying. She did her best though to keep the tradition alive.

Over the course of time, Ujiie and Wada fell in love with the simple mountain village, and Ujiie started attending the flying classes with the children and generally making himself a part of things. Wada did all he could to translate the girl’s grandfather’s notes into Japanese so they could study them and learn about the flying. Everything was going fine, and Wada was led to the jade, which he brought back a large sample of, but by this time, Ujiie was already sabotaging their ability to leave. See, Ujiie had fallen in love with the simplicity of the place, and didn’t want to go back to the modern world he left behind. Eventually he went mad and tried to stop the others from leaving as well because he didn’t want them to bring the modern world into this perfect place. Wada finally convinces him that there’s nothing they can do to stop it, but they can control it and set up a village run company that will lay down restrictions on how much mining can be done so that the outside world wouldn’t ruin this beautiful place.

Wada tells Ujiie that if they can fly using the wings, it will convince people that what’s there, must remain as it is and not be changed. Later that day, they climbed the mountain, strapped on their wings and attempted to take flight. Unfortunately, they dropped like rocks and had to climb back up the side of the mountain bruised and with broken wings.

As the movie ends, it’s thirty years later. Ujiie has remained in the village as an advisor, and Wada has returned home. He married and had a child, and had returned to the village many times over the years. He talks about how he wants his child to experience the wonders of the flying people, and as the movie closes, an aged Ujiie takes flight from the same point on the mountain where he and Wada had fallen so many years before. The final shot is of a lot of the village’s people flying around the top of the mountain.

Basically, The Bird People In China is the story of two men who were dissatisfied with their lives and found what they had been looking for all along in the simplicity of a small mountain village where the people believed they might be able to fly using instructions that a man who fell from the sky translated from an old book that he dug up near the village. The premise is not one that we haven’t seen before, but the execution of that premise was what made this film so incredibly special.

The mountain locations in this film are simply amazing. You can’t help but wish you were there, experiencing everything with the actors as they played out their roles. The characters are all well developed and the pacing, unlike the pacing in many of Miike’s other films, was absolutely perfect for this story. There was plenty of humor spread out through the film as well, and it was all well done and ranged from amusing to hilarious. One scene that just killed me was when they were in the initial leg of their journey and they were riding in a mini van and the door fell off. Ujiie got the driver to stop and he went back and dragged the door to the side of the road. Ujiie asks why he didn’t bring it back and Shen says it’s because he doesn’t have any rope today. Then as they drove off, the steering wheel came off in the driver’s hands.

The Bird People In China is the kind of a film that when you watch it, you know down deep that you’re experiencing something that has a far deeper meaning behind it than the regular old mainstream films that you’re probably used to seeing down at the local theater. You’ll find yourself really feeling for the characters and developing an understanding of what’s driving them. What it really comes down to is that they want something more out of life. Something more than the polluted cities, the crime, the insensitivity of man to his fellow man and all of the other things that make city life miserable. There aren’t a lot of films out there that can make you feel the range of emotions that this one makes you feel, and that’s really what made this such a special experience. I actually took some time between watching the film and writing this review just so I could reflect back upon what I had seen and really absorb everything before I sat down to write.

Whether you love Miike’s work or hate it, I can’t see anyone not loving this film. If you’re a fan of Miike, you’ll probably love it no matter what, but for those like me that didn’t really like his work to start with, if you watch it with fresh eyes and don’t let your prejudices guide your feelings, I think you’ll find that you walk away from this film feeling like you’ve just experienced something wonderful. Miike doesn’t always hit with his films, but with this one, he hit it out of the park.

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