The perfect time to take a nap is where the blue of the night meets the gold of the day, within the fleeting magic hour surrounding sunset. This September past, I came home from work beat down and miserable, set my radio alarm, and fell asleep on the floor of my apartment. I awoke as if to a dream, the most heavenly music that I could possibly imagine was coming out of the radio. How to describe it without betraying it? Not to worry, I won’t even try-I can only hear just a trace of it now, all these months later. I listen instead to Mary Margaret O’Hara’s “You Will Be Loved Again,” because it’s the only song I know that makes me feel the same way. The tragedy in hearing this song, so beautiful, was that I was tuned into a Chinese radio station (I wake up to the morning reggae show), thus unable to understand the DJ. The sadness I felt when it was over – I would never hear it again. Have you ever gone to bed alone, then, in your half-dream/half-waking state in the middle of the night, felt someone beside you in the bed, warming your side, and then in the morning you wake up alone? Bittersweet is how it feels.
Life’s funny sometimes. Lately, I’ve been experiencing some strange coincidences. Unexpected, unannounced, undetected – strangers become friends, the size of the world expands and contracts. Blink and you can miss it.
Three weeks later, I’m slouched deep in my seat at a movie theatre, entranced, lost. Every now and then, a work of art completely takes you over, captures your imagination so completely that the intensity can only be compared to a childhood fantasy. The movie, Bird People In China, begins in Japan, with a straight-and-narrow businessman, Wada, sent on assignment at the last minute to the Yun Nan province of China to check out a potentially lucrative source of jade. The Japanese scenes appear in high speed – a ridicule of modern life. “I even had a wild wish that the airplane would fly slower,” Wada says into his tape recorder as he travels by rail through the countryside. Shortly after getting to China, Wada gets an unwanted partner, a Japanese Yakuza, along for the ride because Wada’s boss has some unpaid debts. With their crazy guide, Shen, they set off on a beautiful, mystical, and hilarious journey into the heart of China. And it’s not until the end that you realize that you’ve been slowly seduced by a fairy tale.
“I often think on such trips that since the birth of Earth would there be any place where mankind has never set foot… day and night, day and night for billions of years,” Wada wonders, early in the journey. The Yun Nan province of China, where the mighty Yangtze flows, is a place where modern man is totally out of place. Journeying through a mountain passage, an epic storm strikes – Wada’s briefcase is smashed against the rocks, and in the aftermath you see a group of mountain goats eating the ‘important’ documents. This is a land straight from the wildest dreams, the sort of geography you’d expect to be populated by the ghosts of other worlds. Perhaps, you’ve seen the pictures – the deep canyons, the strangely shaped rocks sticking straight up, detached from any cliff – the land that invented the flash flood and the sunshower. Hallucinogenic drugs tweak nature in such fantastic ways, and this is a place that looks as if the hallucination of God has been frozen onto the landscape. (All of this is beautifully brought across in the cinematography by Yamamoto Hideo, who also photographed Takeshi Kitano’s Fireworks, a movie that defined serenity for me.)
Wada, the Yakuza, and Shen travel down the perilous river on a raft dragged by six giant turtles. One beautiful scene shows the turtles swimming from an underwater camera angle. During a subsequent interview, I ask the Japanese director, Miike Takashi, how they shot the scene – computer graphics, as it turns out. “They bought those turtles at the market,” he says. “They’re for eating. After the shooting, the crew ate the turtles.” If only Hollywood ate its animals! On screen, there’s more than turtles being eaten. The trio ends up taking a load of mushrooms, while camping one night. Did the crew partake in this, too? He laughs: “That scene was shot in Japan not China. It was Japanese mushrooms. They couldn’t get enough mushrooms in China.”
My interview with Takashi is quite peculiar – at the time, it was the first in-person interview I’d done through a translator. Unlike the interview I did with Kore-eda Hirokazu (director of After Life and Maborisi) in the same week, in which the translator read responses back to me in miniature essay form, Takashi would deliver on average seven sentences followed by a two sentence summary from the two translators on hand (they were both very nice, and I’m grateful for any assistance, but I think they miss the concept of the journalist’s hunger for the great quote!). After the interview, someone offers to take the tape for me to a Japanese friend, fluent in English, but I think this might betray the spirit of the interview. Somehow, it matters not that his answers are lost on me, and equally likely that my questions are lost on him. I think we both get the point. In one hilarious scene in Bird People, an elder in the small village at the end of their journey, makes an impassioned speech to Wada and the Yakuza – afterwards, the Yakuza asks, “What did he say?” “Have no idea,” replies Wada. In the filming of Takashi’s movies, no one speaks the same language. Takashi speaks only Japanese, while much of his crew is Chinese. Says Takashi, “There’s advantages as well. For instance, there’s some Chinese and Taiwanese in those movies, so I can imagine what’s happening in the film, and watch people, and see what they think. It’s sometimes better to have communication without language.”
Language, written and spoken, plays a central role in Bird People. After nearly losing their way, because of the guide’s loss of memory from a mushroom-related incident (“Where is this? Who am I?”), the trio arrives in a remote village in the mountains. This is not just any village. With the aid of a cable strung from bank to bank, the natives spend their spare moments flying back and forth across the very wide river. A blue eyed Chinese girl leads a school of children, with wings attached, through flying lessons. The kids run up and down the hills jumping and flapping their arms. For a while, at least, everyone seems to forget about the jade.
Wada’s major preoccupation is decoding a song that he overhears the blue eyed girl singing, and the song eventually explains so much about this mysterious village. Strangely, the words of the song are in an English mixed deeply into a Chinese accent. After a demonstration of the technology, Wada gets the girl to sing into his tape recorder. He spends his days, playing the tape again and again, trying to make out the words. Then, another strange document turns up – the village’s flying manual. On one page is a written language made of symbols , with an English translation beside it.
The mystery of the song, of the native Chinese girl with blue eyes, of the strange documents unfolds on one tremendously beautiful night. Wada hears the girl singing somewhere in the trees, with another native accompanying on guitar, and he follows the sound to its source. And there it is – the full moon (which seems to be everywhere in Takashi’s movies) shining on a small lake, and in the middle of the lake the tail end of a fighter plane sticking out of the water, and on the bank the girl sings – and then the soundtrack kicks in, complete with strings. Suddenly, I experience a tremendous shock, a deep revelation. The song that is playing is that same song I’d heard on the Chinese radio station three weeks before. How to explain the surprise! I thought I would never hear it again. I cherished it, did my best to hold onto the moment, just as Wada does, trying to record the moonlit presentation, while the red-light battery indicator on his recorder flickers until it dies.
While Wada is uncovering these mysteries, the Yakuza is going through his own transformations. He’s haunted by nightmares of his gangster life in Japan, in which brutal shootings take place in parkades. When the wealth of jade is discovered, the Yakuza slaughters five turtles one night, trying to cut off the link between ‘rotten civilization’ and the village. The Yakuza holds Wada and Shen at gunpoint, when they try to leave with the final turtle. “No matter what, we can’t stop what will come,” Wada pleas. “You must think why we are in the village. Wouldn’t be here if not for the planes and trains … I was able to meet those people here in Yun Nan mountains, and I discovered that song. I really consider myself lucky. I owe it to the things you deny. Even though it may be rare to be able to experience such feeling, it makes me think my life is worth it.” To show the conviction of the words, Wada and the Yakuza don the wings, and together fly, for a brief moment until they crash land, from one of the peaks.
And so time passes. The Yakuza becomes the town’s guardian, carefully monitoring the activities of the jade mines. “And again I slept thousands of times,” says Wada. “I feel it so strange that I cannot dream of what I actually did.”
In the movie’s final moment, there is a P.S.: “The tape with that girl’s song burned in a fire and became ashes. It no longer exists.”
In this article, there is a P.S. I don’t think that Takashi necessarily intended Bird People in China to be an allegory, but I’ve since done some startling research on this region of China. No doubt, you will have at least heard of the Three Gorges Dam project. Initially conceived by Sun Yat-Sen in 1919, it is now scheduled for completion in 2009. If built (and it is already under construction), it will be the largest hydroelectric project the world has ever seen – 60 miles longer than Lake Nasser behind Egypt’s Aswan Dam. Thirteen cities, 140 towns, more than 300 villages, and 1,600 factories will be submerged – leaving 1.5 million people to be relocated, and destroying evidence of human habitation that extends back to the Paleolithic era.
From an historical/archaeological perspective, the list of what will be lost is too long to even begin. One small town, Dachang, well-preserved from the Ming and Qing period (AD 1368 – 1912) will be moved to higher ground – a recovery of sorts, but it’s not even the one tenth of the tip of the iceberg, I’m sure. Beyond archaeology, there’s the tremendous environmental concerns. An article in Foreign Affairs says, “The environmental effects will be comparable to those of damming the Grand Canyon or diverting Niagara Falls.” Some suggest that the Chinese alligator, the finless porpoise, the river dolphin, and the Chinese sturgeon, which exists only in the Yangzte and dates back to the age of the dinosaurs, will all be endangered or wiped out. Seismologists are worried about the effects of a body of water this big, and thus heavy, on a region that is earthquake prone.
Naturally, a series of smaller dams would be equally efficient. But world governments, and particularly communist ones, always want to go large.
P.S.S..- in the movie, there are only three actors from Japan. Otherwise, they are all from the Yun Nan area, and they’re just normal people. This film was made without permission from Beijing, so he can’t show it officially in China. But one day, he says, they will do it by themselves. He will bring the movie, and show it to the people in a private tent.
(This addendum is not available in Issue 1.3. It was intended for the web site only.)
Miike Takashi Addendum:
I feel very fortunate that I was able to watch Bird People In China from the up and coming and still virtually unknown Japanese director, Miike Takashi. In the Vancouver International Film Festival guide, British film writer Tony Rayns (the programmer for Vancouver’s excellent Dragons & Tigers showcase of Southeast Asian film) writes, “Only around 350 people outside Japan have seen Miike Takashi’s debut feature Shinjuku Triad Society – and they were the ones who caught its screening here in the VIFF last year.” Previous to directing his own movies, Takashi was assistant to the great Japanese director Shohei Imamura on Zegen and Black Rain. Takashi’s other two films, Blues Harp and Rainy Dogs, shown in the 1998 VIFF aren’t exactly fairy tales – more like gangster stories with a twist.
In an interview, before I had the chance to see the movies, Takashi says through a translator, “One may be able to say these are violent movies, but actually Blues Harp is about friendship, and Rainy Dogs is about relationship between father and son. But I don’t want to show it obviously.”
In Blues Harp, Takashi unravels one of the most psychologically intricate plots that I can bear witness to. It’s practically King Lear-like. The inner motivations of at least ten people cause shift after shift in the movie’s balance. If only if I could sit down with you, the reader, and tell you about this movie. I beg and plead with you to make sure you see this movie, if you get the chance. I saw it only once, and eight months later, I can still recount the movie down to its smallest detail – a Yakuza eating a blue Popsicle in the harbour, while bodies are packed into oil barrels; an upstart Yakuza named Kenji plans to replace his boss, in conspiracy with the boss’ mistress – each time he has sex with her, he vigorously brushes his teeth afterwards and throws up, unaware in one instance, that the middle aged woman is behind him. Though she’s no innocent, you feel such sympathy when you see the deep hurt in her eyes, while a trickle of blood from her period runs down her leg. When the plans of Kenji are foiled, the boss says, “Never underestimate a woman. They don’t see blood every month for nothing.” But in Takashi’s films, even the most murderous and cunning gangsters are impossible not to love, committing acts of such generous character time and time again.
Meanwhile, Chuji is a half-Black, small time drug dealer, nightclub manager, and, in private, he plays a mean blues harp. As events unfold, an adorable and sweet girlfriend enters his life – in fact, their relationship begins on the same night that Chuji saves Kenji’s life by hiding him, in the back of the club, from his pursuers. Kenji’s gratitude runs deep, very deep – but unfortunately, Kenji’s sideman grows intensely jealous at Kenji’s love for Chuji. As the movie speeds towards its climax-in the afternoon, Chuji finds out his girlfriend’s pregnant (‘It’s a strange feeling. I’m being needed,’ he says), that a record label president is coming to see him play at the club at 7:00, and through blackmail, he’s been selected to kill the Yakuza boss. And so the movie draws closer to its heartbreak ending, in which Kenji finds out at the very last minute that Chuji has been set up. Kenji saves Chuji, getting shot several times in the process. Chuji wants to take him to the hospital, but Kenji insists they go to the club where Chuji’s supposed to be playing. While Kenji bleeds to death in the car, Chuji takes to the stage – as his momentum grows, you see the gangsters enter from the back of the room, force their way through the crowd, someone walks up to the stage, pulls out a gun, and the screen goes black. The movie ends twenty years in the past with an overhead shot of Chuji as a small boy walking with his black GI father on a dusty road, in the middle of a crop field, leading to the beautiful, blue ocean.
Maybe it was just the fact that Blues Harp was about the twentieth movie I’d seen in ten days, and my own sense of self and protection entirely eroded by spending so much time in other people’s imaginary lives (I was becoming an emotional basketcase, in fact) — so perhaps, it was just a result of being so highly receptive, so easily engaged – whatever, it was, what I’m trying to say is that no other movie in my lifetime brings me so close to tears through the mere thought of it.
True to its name, Rainy Dogs takes place on the rain-soaked streets of Taipei, a city that Takashi regards with great affection. He says, “Taipei looks like Tokyo in the 60s and 70s. The people look more alive, more human. Tokyo isn’t a place you can stay. A lot of Japanese people think the same way. They feel like there’s no place to go back to. Especially in Rainy Dogs, when I was there, and stayed at the hotel. It felt very comfortable. I can’t be comfortable in Tokyo or Okinawa. Everybody in Japan is thinking, ‘There should be somewhere we have to return.’ All the characters in my movies are looking for a place to settle.” Rainy Dogs is based around another exiled Yakuza named Yuji. A former girlfriend comes from out of nowhere, dumping a boy she claims is his son outside his apartment, and then departing. What follows is some of the worst parenting you could possibly imagine. Yuji, sharply decked out in a long trench coat, conducts his Yakuza business, while the boy follows him around ten paces behind. And make no mistake, this is a gruesome business.
Takashi’s violence makes you wince. He says, “I want to shoot violent scenes, and not action scenes. The blood and pain makes it more real to the audience. Hollywood can make nice, violent movies, but I can’t.”
Throughout this, Yuki won’t so much as acknowledge the boy’s presence, and the boy sleeps outside in the streets, digging through restaurant garbages to eat, sleeping in cardboard boxes, and playing with a dog. But just as Yuji begins to come around and be a good father, and a nice woman, albeit a hooker with her own website, comes into the picture, we have another tragic finale on our hands.
Takashi has sparked interest from Tom Luddy and Wayne Wang, and is supposed to direct one of their ‘Chrome Dragon’ projects. Bird People In China was a big success at the Vancouver Film Festival – they added a third showing. Introducing the film, through a translator, Takashi said, “I may not look like a compassionate person, but I am very grateful.”
I keep my fingers crossed that others will get the chance to see his movies.