The Bird People In China (Ch’Goku No ChÔJin)
Director – Takashi Miike, Screenplay – Masa Nakamura, Based on the Novel by Makato Shiina, Producers – Seiha Oji, Hiroyuki Tsuji & Norio Watanabe, Photography – Hideo Yamamoto, Music – Koji Endo, Visual Effects – NHK-Enterprise 21. Production Company – Hone Film/Marubeni Corporation/Sedic International/Yomiko Advertising
Masahiro Motoki (Wada), Renji Ishabashi (Ujiie), Mako (Shen), Li Li Wang (Yan Si-chang)
After his boss falls ill, the Japanese salaryman Wada is assigned to go to the remote Yun Nan province in China and assess the value of a lode of jade there. He is abruptly joined by Ujiie, a violent and uncouth yakuza enforcer who has come to collect on unpaid debts owed by the company. As they set out, the two of them are bewildered by the journey they face – their vehicle falling apart, roads washed out, having to travel by turtle-drawn raft, their guide/interpreter developing amnesia after being hit by a branch. Eventually they reach the remote village and find a simple people who live around myths of their bird people ancestors. Listening to a local girl singing, Wada realizes that her song is a traditional Scottish love ballad. The discovery of a crashed plane makes him realize that the village’s myth of bird people comes from her grandfather, a British flyer who crashed there and settled amongst the people. At the same time, Ujiie comes to love life there and realizes that the development of the jade mine will corrupt the Bird People’s simple culture. And so he takes ruthless steps to stop them ever going back.
Japanese director Takashi Miike has become a cult figure in the West with films like Audition (1999), Ichi the Killer (2001) and Visitor Q (2001). Takashi Miike is an extraordinarily prolific director with a seemingly unstoppable workaholic regimen – The Bird People in China was one of no less than eight films he made in 1998.
As more and more of Takashi Miike’s films are being rediscovered and released in the West, they continue to bring surprises. Most people typify Miike for his ultra-violent taboo-defying horror and his enormous body of yakuza films. Alongside these, The Bird People in China is a considerable surprise. While most of Takashi Miike’s films are littered with scenes of casual violence and outrageous perversity, The Bird People in China is a genteel film about friendship and the veneration of traditional values. Indeed, while most of Takashi Miike’s other films seem designed to thumb a nose at and shock moral standards, The Bird People in China sits at an almost 180 degree remove and says that some of these values are worth preserving. If anything, The Bird People in China has a contemplative beauty that feels like it is made more by Miike’s countryman Takeshi Kitano than it does a characteristic Takashi Miike film. There is a yakuza hitman in the film but he is there more as the character who is changed and humanized by his experience.
For a time, The Bird People in China gives the impression that Takashi Miike is making a comedic variant on the traditional road movie, throwing two opposed city characters adrift in a rural backwater. There is a deadpan sense of humour to some of these scenes – like the reactions of Masahiro Motoki and Renji Ishabashi as the side-door falls off the van and the driver stops, picks it up and puts on the side of the road, leaving it there as the translator tells them “because he hasn’t brought any rope today” and assuring them at their stunned reactions “Don’t worry, nobody’ll steal it,” before they continue on and the steering wheel promptly comes off in the driver’s hand. There is a sense of escalatingly black fatalism throughout the journey – the collapsing van, rivers washed out, guides getting amnesia and forgetting where they are meant to be going. And then there is that ever so bizarre moment when they set out on a raft pulled by turtles, which makes you scratch your head and wonder what on Earth is going on.
The deadpan road movie soon drops away and The Bird People in China becomes a genteel, often moving portrait of a lost culture. In some ways, The Bird People in China is almost a science-fiction film – it is often akin to a lost world film like The Island at the Top of the World (1974) or The Island (1980) concerning the discovery of a forgotten civilization. The latter two-thirds of the running time develops out into a story about cultural cross-pollination. The scenes with Masahiro Motoki piecing together the translation of the Scottish ballad Annie Laurie and the truth behind Yan’s grandfather is almost a pure science-fictional piece of conceptual breakthrough. The ballad when we hear it sung in its entirety is quite beautiful and these scenes hold an exquisite sense of seeing the way in which cultural myth grows.
Takashi Miike and his film crew shot the film in the real remote Yun Nan province and the locations have a haunting untouched splendour. The background scenes during the journey offer a fascinating portrait of untouched, rural backwater China and in showing just how rundown and underdeveloped the countryside is. The script does buy somewhat into the clichéd polarization of seeing peoples uncorrupted by civilization as pure and innocent and civilization, industry and commerce as evil, although, in the climactic moments, Masahiro Motoki is allowed to make an appeal on behalf of the virtues of civilization while being held at gunpoint and the film seems to aim for a point of happy reconciliation between the two. The Bird People in China however is a film that leaves one with an abiding sense of wanting to hold onto and preserve something innocent and pure. The moment of quasi-fantastical transcendence that the film goes out on with the bird people circling the mountain has a haunting loveliness.
Takashi Miike’s other genre films are:– Full Metal Yakuza (1997), a yakuza/cyborg film; the teen film Andromedia (1998) about a schoolgirl resurrected as a computer program; the torture and sadism film Audition (1999); the Yakuza film Dead or Alive (1999), which comes with a gonzo sf ending; the surreal Dead or Alive 2 – Birds (2000); the six-hour tv mini-series MPD Psycho (2000) about a split-personalitied cop tracking a serial killer; the surreal black comedy The Happiness of the Katakuris (2001); Ichi the Killer (2001), a Yakuza film with some extreme torture scenes; the controversial taboo-defying Visitor Q (2001) about a mysterious visitor; the Cyberpunk future-set Dead or Alive: Final (2002); the surreal Yakuza film Gozu (2003); One Missed Call (2003) about ghostly cellphone calls; the ultra-violent Izo (2004) about a cursed, immortal samurai; an episode of the horror anthology Three … Extremes (2004); the superhero film Zebraman (2004); the fairytale Demon Pond (2005); the supernatural fantasy epic The Great Yokai War (2005); Big Bang Love, Juvenile A (2006), a prison murder mystery with SF elements; the SF film God’s Puzzle (2008); YatterMan (2009), a gonzo live-action remake of a superpowered anime tv series; Zebraman 2: Attack on Zebra City (2010); Lesson of the Evil (2012) about a murderous high school teacher; As the Gods Will (2014) with high school students being slaughtered by a doll; Over Your Dead Body (2014) wherein the roles in a ghost story play come to replay themselves in the lives of the actors; the gonzo horror film Yakuza Apocalypse (2015); Terra Formars (2016) about giant mutated cockroaches on Mars; Blade of the Immortal (2017) about an immortal samurai; and JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure: Diamond is Unbreakable – Chapter 1 (2017).