The Bird People in China Movie Review
This is a road picture, a very bumpy road picture, featuring two Japanese men who make their way to a primitive corner of China's remote Yunnan province in search of a potentially valuable vein of jade that's just waiting to be mined. Yuppie businessman Wada (Masahiro Motoki) thinks he's traveling alone. Little does he know he's being shadowed by Ujiie (Renji Ishibashi), a yakuza who plans on grabbing the jade lode since Wada's company owes money to his gangland bosses.
Upon their arrival somewhere near the middle of nowhere, they're met by Wada's hired guide, Shen (Mako), a good-humored hippie type who knows the mountains well. Wada finds out about Ujiie's evil intentions, but he has no choice but to soldier on with the gangster in tow. Both are utterly dependent on Shen to guide them by van and on foot to the extremely remote location where the jade is believed to be.
Sit back and watch the scenery. It's soon obvious that Miike plans to deliver some hard-hitting environmentalism lessons along the way. The canyons through which the threesome wander are so beautiful, and the people they meet so isolated and innocent, that the last thing you want to see is an invasion by a Japanese mining crew showing up to destroy a mountain.
The villagers are of two minds. They're thrilled with the idea of getting electricity and basic services, but they're wary of strangers, as well they should be. The unpredictable Ujiie tends to wave his gun around, and Wada is kept constantly on edge by Ujiie's bad temper.
And there's something weird about the village that has Wada confused. Aren't the words of that pretty song that lovely young Si-Chang (Li Li Wang) always sings actually broken English? And why does she have blue eyes? Wada has her sing her song into his tape recorder, and then he spends days attempting to translate it via his pocket electronic English-Japanese translator. Even talking to the villagers is a struggle. Wada speaks Japanese to Shen, who speaks Chinese to a villager, who then translates into the local dialect for the village chief. More than anything Wada wants to know why the local children run around with bamboo and cloth wings strapped to their arms, flapping them wildly as if they're learning to fly. "It's a tradition," he learns, but a tradition based on what?
The village's secrets are revealed at a leisurely pace, and the hot-tempered Ujiie finds himself lulled by the environment. Eventually he goes native and in doing so introduces a new kind of danger to the village. The film builds to a battle between the past and the future. It's quite a debate. We're always reading articles about the Chinese government's willingness to devour its own natural resources for the sake of its fast-paced drive toward industrialization. What's going to happen to these people and their pristine home?
Miike handles all this with surprising reserve. Except for one stunning scene where we see a CGI flotilla of turtles pulling the travelers' raft upstream, there are no special effects and none of his typical gore. It's a small story painted on a huge and gorgeous canvas, and you won't want it to end until you find out if the villagers really can fly.
Aka Chûgoku no chôjin.