WTF ASIA 62: The Bird People in China (1998)
A Takashi Miike Yakuza film that is somehow significantly less violent than the previous two films in this series AND refrains from devolving into complete depravity? Wellâ€¦
Wada is a salaryman, around thirty-years-old, living in the hustle and bustle of the big city. A coworker was supposed to go to a remote village in Yunnan Province in Southwest China to assess some jade. Unfortunately, the coworker supposedly got sick, so Wada is sent instead. Wada, however, knows next to nothing about jade, so much of his time is spent reading up on it, though he also uses a tape recorder to keep an audio journal. His middle-class corporate outfit sticks out in this more humble rural area as it is. When a couple of passengers on a train realize that he is Japanese, they start playing an old Japanese song on their stereo. Apparently, they are trying to be friendly (I would imagine that the scenario might play out differently if the story was set now instead of sixteen years ago), but Wada finds the sudden attention quite awkward, especially when another passenger takes a picture of them.
Wada meets up with Shen, his interpreter. They are about to leave in an elderly man’s van when they get stopped by the guy who took Wada’s picture on the train. Shen assumes that the guy accompanied Wada, but Wada has no idea who he is. It turns out that the man is Ujiie, a middle-aged member of the Yakuza. His gang was associated with Wada’s company and, apparently, the company has been slow in paying a debt. Instead of paying that debt in cash or whatever, the company promised to pay the debt using whatever jade was found in China. Nobody told Wada, but it could very well be the “sickness” that kept his coworker from going on the trip. It also could be a way to send Ujiie away for a while. In any case, Ujiie does not want to be here any more than Wada does, but while Wada is content to research jade and make detached observations of his surroundings, Ujiie tends to take out his anger on Wada.
The group of three eventually a find a trucker to give them a ride after the van proves to be ridiculously unreliable. This is probably for the better anyways, since the area that they are going to has not really been explored even by the Chinese government. Yet, they eventually have to start going by foot over what seems to be a huge river and up a watery mountain, where almost all of their possessions get washed away or eaten by goats. Eventually, though, they come across an indigenous man who will take them down river to the village in his boat, even though the man believes that going downriver means courting death. After Ujiie knocks Shen down a hill in a drug-induced episode, Shen gets amnesia. He can still translate, but he has no idea who he is, who anyone else is, or what he is supposed to do. So, the group of four stop at some village along the way.
It turns out that this is the village of the Bird People. The children, led by a young woman named Si-chang, put on what looks like makeshift bird wings and flap their arms while running about. This tradition was passed down to Si-chang by her grandfather, whom some villagers described as demented. Si-chang does not actually know if the methods that she learned will actually allow her to fly. The mystery of her grandfather gives Wada something to focus on aside from jade, while the relative tranquility of the village awakens something in Ujiie.
There are those who say that it is as if Werner Herzog had remade the British 1983 movie Local Hero, which was about an American who goes to a Scottish town to set up some oil company thingamee. Iâ€¦guess soâ€¦but not really. It is more focused than the British film, with fewer digressions, and with more ambiguity regarding the locals. I do sort of see Herzogâ€™s touch in the struggle to get to the village, the oppressive ambient beauty, and the breezy randomness of the storyline. But this is not Werner Herzog; this is Takashi Miike.
Despite being a Miike movie, it is much mellower than one might expect. It is not violence-free, but violence, at least brutal violence, is quite rare. It is also relatively free of the zany madcap atmosphere or the eerie weirdness of many of his movies, preferring more straightforward quirkiness. Sure, there is some goofy stuff that is obviously played for laughs, but the madness is toned down for the most part. It is also a rather simple movie while still keeping Miikeâ€™s penchant for having some complex underlying themes that could lead to conflicting interpretations.
Many Japanese movies concern themselves with an era or moment that will disappear. It could be an actual time period or merely a child’s coming of age. This movie concerns itself with a traditional culture that may be on its way out. Early in the movie, some random Japanese guy looking for some artifacts claims that Yunnan is the birthplace of Japanese culture, even though Yunnan is pretty far away from Japan. This suggests that the Bird People are at the beginning of civilization, and people like Wada and Ujiie are at the endpoint. Wada, who keeps copious amounts of notes and has never dreamt of flying. Ujiie, who packs a gun and has nightmares of a bloody death. The modern Japan in this movie moves so quickly that it is almost impossible to process. Everyone seems like just a cog in a giant machine. This is the endpoint of the modern life that is coming to Yunnan Province.
Things are not that one-sided, though. This small village may not have electricity, but it has already been touched by the outside world. Some of the elders do not speak Mandarin, but pretty much all of the younger villagers do. A (relatively) nearby city is going to get an airport soon, which may bring in more tourists with a desire for indigenous trinkets. Modernity is coming regardless of whether Wada’s jade project brings electricity to the village. The village chief, who does not speak Mandarin (or Japanese), seems resigned to the fact that some of the more vocal young men in the village are ecstatic over the prospect of getting electricity. Will this new wave of modernity destroy the identity of the Bird People? Maybe…but maybe not. Modernity had already come in a limited form, and the village absorbed it, though maybe not in the way that the bringers of modernity had intended. Small tragedies have befallen the village that modern medicines perhaps could have prevented. Yeah, not exactly Avatar, here.
Another theme of the film is difficulty of understanding each other or communicating with each other. Wada and Ujiie have trouble enough being on the same page about anything, and that is before the language barrier. Shen (played by Japanese actor Mako and you are not going to tell me that you do not recognize that name) is able to bridge most of the language barriers despite his amnesia, but he sometimes has trouble with the concepts of the village and even he needs a translator to talk to the chief. And then this trouble with communication reaches a new level when another language gets introduced over halfway through. Wada has an electronic dictionary, but it is no more reliable as Google Translate.
Si-Chang, for her part, tries to keep alive the tradition of her grandfather, but she admits that she does not understand it. Wada has the idea that maybe there is a mystery that he can solve regarding this tradition, but he rarely tries to talk with Si-Chang about anything else, such as the jade exchange or the prospect of electricity coming to the village. Ujiie, for his part, looks at the village for what it represents and not what it actually is. Neither of them really take the time to understand the village or the villagers. To be fair, the movie does not really do this either; except for those few men joyous at the prospect of electricity, the villagers are kept at a distance. It is mostly through the eyes of Wada and Ujiie. Sure, that may keep them exotic and inscrutable curiosities in a way that the Scottish townsfolk in Local Hero were not, but there could be a purpose.
Perhaps the audience is meant to be forced to relate primarily with the Japanese men, and for their understanding of the Bird People to be limited to what the Japanese men know. We are not supposed to have more information than the Japanese do. That would not be fair. They spend several days there, while the movie spends only around eighty minutes there. Getting more insider information that the characters get will not prevent us viewers from coming to our own erroneous and condescending conclusions as to how they are, what they think, and what is best for them. In fact, it will only fill us with a false and completely unearned sense of knowledge that would make the erroneous conclusions harder to shake. This lack of understanding how badly and how long one has misunderstood something has led to major problems around the world.
We, like the Japanese men, are the outsiders who may fall love, but might never really understand. But, maybe there are things that we are not necessarily meant to completely understand. And maybe we should just accept that we do not completely understand something and, instead of fearing it, try to engage with it. Indeed, there are probably a lot of things in this movie that I did not pick up on or understand, but that does not stop me from thoroughly enjoying it. And I may try to understand more of it as time goes on but, just like with all of the movies in my series and anything in general, I can never claim to understand the totality of it all. And I am okay with that.
Next Time: Hard Boiled (Hong Kong: 1992, approx. 130 minutes)
Time After Next: Memories of Murder (South Korea: 2003, approx. 130 minutes)