Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases or premieres, or occasionally our own inscrutable whims. Because it’s 1998 Week here at The A.V. Club, we’re looking back at some of the movies of that bygone year.
“Touching” and “meditative” aren’t usually words you’d use to describe Takashi Miike. He’s directed more than 100 films across a wide variety of genres—from insanely fucked-up horror to doom-laden historical drama to the odd kids’ movie—so it’s no small thing to say that 1998's The Bird People In China stands out as one of the most unique in his filmography. Part travelogue, part buddy comedy, part historical mystery, and part environmental drama, the film expresses the universal human longing for a simpler life—and how that longing often conflicts with reality—through the character of Ujiie (Renji Ishibashi), a belligerent yakuza who has a spiritual epiphany while traveling in rural China. In some ways, Ujiie can be seen as a stand-in for the director himself, especially given that the one scene in the film that bears any resemblance to Miike’s famously ultra-violent gangster fare is a flashback that grips Ujiie when he’s confronted with the seeming inevitability of returning to his old life. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
We open with a voice-over from meek salaryman Wada (Masahiro Motoki), who’s narrating his trip into a tape recorder, Agent Cooper style. Wada has been sent to investigate a completely untouched deposit of jade that’s rumored to have been discovered in a remote, mountainous area of China inaccessible except by boat; as he discovers when he’s accosted by Ujiie on the train inland, those rumors have also reached the yakuza, who see the discovery as an opportunity for Wada’s employer to pay back the debts it owes the syndicate. Thus, the two men are thrust together, bickering like Abbot and Costello in a Hawaiian shirt and a three-piece suit as they travel first on a train, then in a van, then in the back of a truck, then on a raft pulled by turtles, then up the side of a mountain on foot. After days of traveling, lost and freaking out after accidentally ingesting some magic mushrooms, they’re both on the verge of insanity—until a shimmering village appears in the distance to save them from their own personal Heart Of Darkness.
Unlike Conrad, however, Miike doesn’t condescend to the villagers living in this mountainous retreat. Although their home is depicted as a magical place where “civilized” men like Wada and Ujiie can get in touch with their more authentic, primitive selves, the locals know that their Japanese visitors come bringing modern conveniences and economic opportunity, and are enthusiastic at the prospect. It’s Ujiie who romanticizes the village’s traditional lifestyle as something pure and sacred, and reacts violently when Wada proposes that it’s time to report back to their bosses back home. Instead, Miike enhances the fairytale aspect of the story with the character of Si-chang (Li Li Yang), a young woman who’s lived her whole life completely isolated from the outside world, yet can be heard singing an English folk song as she tends to her goats.
Miike plays coy with whether the local legend of what absent-minded guide Shen (Mako) calls “bird people”—“it’s difficult to translate,” Shen says—is real or not until the very end of the film, and obviously we won’t spoil that here. (Pause the trailer below at 1:19 if you don’t want to know.) But if you’re familiar with Miike’s other work, The Bird People In China is worth seeking out, if only for the novelty of a Takashi Miike movie characterized more by its leisurely pace and gorgeous landscape photography than its extreme—well, anything. (The few stylized flourishes that are in the film are sweetly silly, like the Richard Lester-esque sped-up travel montage and a cartoonish shot of Wada’s eyes popping out of his head after he unwittingly eats magic mushrooms.) Even if you’re not a Miike fan, it’s an elegiac take on development and the environmental perils of capitalism from a non-Western perspective, which is interesting in its own right. Besides, where else are you going to meet a hippie yakuza who dreams that he can fly?
Availability: The Bird People In China was released on DVD back in 2004; that edition is currently out of print, but can be bought used on Amazon for a reasonable price. It may also be available through your local library or, if you live in a bigger city, a specialty rental store like Chicago’s Odd Obsession Movies or Seattle’s Scarecrow Video.