THE BIRD PEOPLE IN CHINA (1998)

T.I.C.: THIS IS CHINA

Cult director Takashi Miike has made a warm departure from his more traditional and visceral yakuza crime epics, and presented us with a journey into the wilds of China, and into the interior of the human heart. This film is leagues away from BLUES HARP, and RAINY DOG. What begins as a pedestrian last minute assignment for a young Japanese businessman (Masashiro Motoki as Wada), rapidly becomes a tempestuous tale worthy of a Joseph Conrad rendering. He is shadowed by a yakuza henchman (Renji Ishibashi as Ujiie), there to insure the financial success of the venture in order to recoup a corporate mob loan. This fine film is like when David Lynch directed THE STRAIGHT STORY (1999), as a departure from his formula.

There is a remote Chinese village that sports a jade mine. These men are sent to investigate its validity and secure the jade’s distribution. The trip to the village is long, arduous and humorous, loaded with the edgy comic violence and absurdity that Miike excels in. Their guide is Shen (Mako in one of his last performances). He wears his hair long, pulled back in a ponytail. It is fun to see him with hair, since most of his roles required him to wear his hair very short. Shen is a Japanese adventurer that had lived for a time in the village.

As the travelers transition from rickety VW van to a two-cylinder mountain taxi, to just hiking on foot, dragging their modern luggage up steep trails, we are treated with some of the most striking scenery and visual imagery ever recorded on film. Swollen spring rivers, terribly muddy roads filled with ruts, and oppressive downpours are all part of the adventure. At one point they must travel by raft on a mighty river. The bamboo raft is towed by five large turtles. The underwater imagery of those towing turtles sticks with you. There is a feel of Werner Herzog on the rivers, and in the mountains, of a wildness and untouched majesty; Klaus Kinski on the river in AGUIRRA: Wrath of God (1972), and struggling to move a steamboat over the mountains in FITZCARRALDO (1982).

At the village they are greeted like family with a sweet simplicity and joy. They happen on to a swarm of children one morning, all wearing paper wings and hopping along while singing. A young girl teaches the children mythical techniques of “flying”. The crags and towering peaks beckon as the wind serenades them. Ujiie is fascinated by the children, and by the prospect of actually soaring in the thin air. Wada is fascinated by the young girl, talking of her grandfather who discovered ancient texts in the village outlining the tradition of flying; how to construct the wings, and how to exercise the body, and prepare their spirits. It seems the grandfather was Irish, and he “fell from the sky” one day, and spent the rest of his life in the village. The young girl sings phonetically an Irish ballad. Wada is obsessed with solving the mystery of her past and of the village.

The stunning mist-enshrouded wind-swept mountains bring to mind Frank Capra’s FAR HORIZONS (1937) and Shangra-La. As weeks turn into months, this time in the village permanently change these men, gently putting them in touch with their spiritual core, their essence –and as viewers, we too are touched by the pristine natural rhythm of the place. We find ourselves yearning to go there to, or find a similar place to divest ourselves of the urban blight we wear habitually like mackinaws in summer.

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About Glenn Buttkus

Former actor and Special Ed teacher for the blind, newly retired, spending my days struggling as poet, photographer, novelist, husband, and grandfather.
This entry was posted in Discussion of Official TFC Selected Films, Glenn Buttkus. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to THE BIRD PEOPLE IN CHINA (1998)

  1. marlowe44 says:

    One thing this fine film did not actually deal with was the common dream symbol of flying. At some point, most people have dreams of themselves flying. Federico Fellini had them all the time. I had them as a young man. I would jump and bounce higher with each spring until I was high enough to launch into the airwaves. The sensation of “flying” was about as pleasurable as any I can recall in a dreamscape. A few years ago I began having levitation dreams. I was doing a lot of meditation and study at that time. These days I just have the old caught naked in public dreams, and can’t find a functioning toilet dreams, and being lost in some metropolis I have never been in before that I always suspect is Chicago dreams, and the actor’s dream of being brought in at the last minute, and I have never seen a script, or cannot remember my lines and can’t find a script, or can’t even find the dressing room; even to the point where sometimes I am forced to make a entrance on stage and improvise some lines from other plays; or I am back in the USNavy dreams, an old man limping through boot camp, with a uniform that is 3 sizes too small, or I am back in college, on a test day, and I am ill prepared, or have skipped the class all quarter; or I am just lost on campus, as it is getting dark, and I can’t find my vehicle dreams. But “flying” dreams, how sublime, how powerful it makes you feel, how wonderful it is as it centers your spirit.
    Glenn

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