I first came across The Bird People in China after I had watched Departures and I wanted to find out more about Masahiro Matoki who played the protagonist in the film. The name of the movie (Bird People) intrigued me, so I ordered it from Netflix.
I have to admit that I did not enjoy a good bit of the first part of the movie, but because I like this actor, and I really wanted to find out about the bird people, and because the promotional picture piqued my curiosity, I stuck with it, and after a while, I was really glad I had.
This is the story of Wada, a Japanese businessman who gets an urgent call from his company. The man who has been previously negotiating with a small village in China for the rights to mine Jade in their area has been hospitalized, and the company needs someone to take his place right away. Wada, who knows nothing about Jade, has been chosen to take his place.
He arrives, attired in a business suit, in a run-down, out-of-the-way town in China where he is met by his driver, who owns a dilapidated van, and with whom he can barely communicate. The driver takes him to meet Ujiie his translator and a representative of the people with whom Wada’s company is doing business. Shortly after they meet, Ujiie takes Wada into an empty building and beats the ever-loving daylight out of him. This has something to do with Ujiie’s employers dealings with Wada’s predecessor, but I could never really figure out what was going on, and Wada was as much in the dark as I am. This scene is filled with brutal violence and is painful to watch, and yet it is partly played for comedy. When the funny lines come, it’s really surprising.
Resuming the journey, they drive into the night to an inn in a remote village (although in retrospect, this won’t seem so remote). It is at their evening meal that Wada first hears about the Bird People. There is a young man staying in the inn who has heard a legend about them, and he is on a journey to find if they really exist.
By the time Wada and Ujiie are sharing a small room for the night, Wada has realized that Ujiie is a yakuza – a gangster. Wada never refers to Ujiie in any other way than as the gangster, so I will hereafter relieve myself of the misery of typing a word with a j followed by two i’s. When the gangster turns his back to Wada, we see that he is covered with strange tattoos, and during the night he is visited by terrifying dreams.
After a long journey in the van, they meet with the man who is going to guide them on foot over the mountains to the river on which the village is located. The men seem to have come to an uneasy truce, although occasionally the gangster seems compelled to abuse Wada in some way. Then, after a seemingly endless journey (a perfect metaphor for the beginning of the movie) they come to a river where they are ferried across by a very mysterious man using a very mysterious means of power, and the beautiful movie begins.
Shortly after finally arriving in the village, the men come across the small children of the village having their flying lessons. For sheer joy, it would be hard to beat this scene. I wish I could get a better picture.
When they ask the villagers about the classes, they are told that the young woman who teaches them is the granddaughter of a man who fell from the skies many years ago, and who was able to fly. She is teaching them what he taught her, although she doesn’t know if they will ever really be able to take flight. She has never done so herself. This young woman is very quiet and peaceful. I don’t know if we ever even learn her name. She seems entirely content with her life in the village, and her flying school and seems not to worry at all about the eventual success or failure of the flying lessons.
As the woman walks along, she frequently sings a soft and lovely song over and over. Soon Wada realizes that he knows the song, and you will too, and this adds to the mystery surrounding her family. As time goes by Wada becomes increasingly fascinated with the story of her grandfather and works hard to decipher the manuscript he left behind. As he learns more about the grandfather’s story, he begins to have a great desire to learn to fly.
I hesitate to say any more about the plot lest I give too much away. This isn’t a perfect movie. As I mentioned before the first part was not quite to my taste, although it was far from being totally bad. The second part had a few flaws too, but they were very much outweighed by its strengths. I would like to watch the film a few more times, although at the moment that would be difficult. It is available on DVD from Netflix, and can be bought from Amazon, but it’s pretty pricey. You can see a trailer here but I’m really not sure if it is a good idea to watch it before the movie. You can also watch the movie in Japanese, but stay away from the English version on Youtube because it’s not what it seems.
—Janet Cupo has been commenting on this blog for about as long as it's existed, and has her own excellent blog at The Three Prayers.