November 3rd, 2006
It can be challenging to watch Asian movies because as westerners, our assumptions are often wrong. We try and make sense of a film by linking it to Shakespeare, Homer, Dante, or the Bible, only to find that its world view is Buddhist, Hindu, or Shinto instead. (Or it may be Maoist.)
This movie by the Japanese director Takashi Miike has many levels of strangeness. The lead character, Wada, is a Japanese travelling in the remote Yunnan province of China, where he does not know the language or the culture. He’s looking for precious jade. Accompanied by the guide Shen and a yakuza (Japanese gangster) named Ujiie, who intends to take the jade in payment of a debt, he travels to a place high in the mountains which is reachable only by a raft pulled by 6 turtles. At this point the film moves into fantasy mode.
Wada meets a woman whose grandfather was a British flyer who “fell from the sky.” She sings the British folk song Annie Laurie but does not understand the words. She and the students at her flying school wear cloth wings and may be able to fly.
The yakuza undergoes a sea-change in the mountains. Captivated by the special qualities of the place, he drops his violent stance and puts on the cloth wings along with the children. But he is still a yakuza. Convinced that no one should be allowed to leave in case they come back as a corrupting influence (such as a jade mining company), he kills one of the turtles; but it turns out that five turtles can still do the job.
This film is something like Heart of Darkness, Lost Horizon, and Brigadoon combined. Among other things, I think there is a critique of Communist China here, embodied in the yakuza who doesn’t want anyone to leave. (The guide Shen remarks that there is a man in these mountains who hasn’t heard about Chairman Mao. Not only that Mao has died, but that he ever existed.) I’d have to watch it again to get closer to figuring this out, and I probably will.
The film is utterly perplexing and quite beautiful. Absolutely recommended.
Here’s the mysterious bird girl. (Pay no attention to the DVD cover art. It’s not in the movie.)