Adapted from Makoto Shiina's novel of the same name, Takashi Miike's Bird People In China is a testament to the director's cinematic versatility and seemingly unlimited wealth of talent. Taking a detour from his usual style of over the top violence and bloodshed, Miike presents the viewer with a film that is both visually stunning and emotionally uplifting.
Sent by his employer to investigate a deposit of rare and precious jade, Wada journeys from Japan into the last stronghold in China. Living a very structured and work devoted life, Wada is unaccustomed to gem hunting and does a great deal of research to compensate for his ignorance. Unfortunately, all the textbooks in the world could not prepare Wada for the events that took place on his trip.
Upon arriving at the agreed destination to meet his guide, Wada encounters a high strung Yakuza, Mr. Ujiie, sent to ensure the aquisition of the jade as payment promised by Wada's company. At the same time, we are introduced to Wada's guide, Shen, a burnt out Chinese hippie who has ties with the village where the jade is located. The trio begin their journey to the last stronghold in an impoverished town, but soon make their way to the countryside, where the storyline takes a back seat to some of the most impressive landscapes ever caught on film.
Untouched by modern civilization, the stronghold is the last piece of China that is without Westernization. At first, both Wada and Ujiie are reluctant to enter the technologically deficient area, but soon remember their main objective in finding the vein of jade. After a long and grueling journey, they arrive at their village destination. Greeted by the townspeople eager to bring business to their tiny existence, Wada and Ujiie are introduced to a culture that lives without the consequences of civilization's advancements.
En route to their first attempt at recovering raw jade, the group encounters a school of children aping the movements of birds and equipped with makeshift wings. Enamored by childrens' actions and Japanese folklore, Ujjie sets out to investigate the school of "Bird People" while Wada continues the search for the Jade. Ujiie's investigation of the school leads him to a woman, the teacher of the Bird People, whose grandfather was rumored to fall from the sky on the village. Led to the only remaining artifact of her grandfather's descent on the village, Ujiie and Wada discover an old Indian airplane, the only piece of modern civilization to penetrate the existance of the tiny village. It is then that the moral dilemna begins as to whether or not this untouched land should fall prey to the Japanese corporation's mining industry.
Utilizing a humorous approach to mock modern society, Miike's character development of both Wada and Ujiie reflect the simplicities of life that we as a whole take for granted. Whether it be dependable motorized transportation or the availabilty of hot water (and indoor plumbing), all aspects of technological advance are soon forgotten once the duo are introduced to the beauties of the stronghold's landscape. Throughout the initial journey into impoverished China I found myself laughing out loud at Wada and Ujiie's conflicting personalities. That comedic sensation soon changed to awe, as the stronghold was reached and lush fields of green filled the television screen. It was then that I realized that Takashi Miike could capture the beauty of the living earth as well as he could the anguish of a dying man, a scenario so often visited in his previously viewed films.
Although Bird People in China presents a plethora of moral conflict relevant to man's relationship with the Earth, it was Miike's ability to capture beauty in life that captivated me the most. This is the first time that I have seen Miike utilize the preservation of life, rather than the consequential effects of death, as a vehicle to convey his message. To me, the effectiveness of the story's presentation is what makes Bird People In China so special, and a film that is essential to any Miike enthusiast's collection.