‘Suburban Birds’ (‘Jiao qu de niao’): Film Review | Locarno 2018

The unconventionally told Chinese film ‘Suburban Birds’ unfurls two stories connected in mysterious ways, marking a feature debut for writer-director Qiu Sheng.

Two separate but interrelated stories — one about land surveyors discovering subsidence in a suburban area and one about a gaggle of preteen friends roaming those same suburban streets between home and school — are pretzeled together in Chinese writer-director Qiu Sheng’s enigmatic but oddly entrancing feature debut, Suburban Birds (Jiao qu de niao). Clearly influenced by such art house Asian puzzlemeisters as Hong Sang-Soo, Tsai Ming-liang and Apichatpong Weerasethakul as well as other talents closer to home, Qiu takes delight in teasing the audience with inexplicable temporal twists and turns, so that the two stories overlap and echo one another other. That means it’s anyone’s guess as to what’s happening before, during or after each narrative strand. Best to just roll with it as this is the very definition of a “festival film.”

Connecting the two stories is a common character named Xiahao, played as an adult by Mason Lee (he’s appeared in such Western fare as The Hangover II and Lucy as well as Chen Kaige’s recent Legend of the Demon Cat) and Gong Zihan as a boy of 10 or 11. Or are the two actors playing two entirely different people living in the same time frame who both just happen to be named Xiahao? It’s a mystery the film is certainly in no hurry to solve.

The Bottom Line

‘Stand by Me’ meets Kafka’s ‘The Castle.’

In the first story to be introduced — Qiu crosscuts between the two strands and characters and actions from one occasionally crop up in the other — the adult Xiahao is part of a team of geomatic surveyors who are trying to work out why and by how much the land is subsiding before construction on a subway begins. Xiahao and his colleague Ant (Deng Jing) disagree with their boss Han (Xiao Xiao) over what’s causing the ground to subside and crater, making buildings unstable above ground. Officer Jiang (Wang Xinyu), meanwhile, clearly represents political/party interests who just want this survey over as a formality so the works project can commence.

At the ruthlessly anonymous hotel where they’re all staying, Xiahao meets Swallow (Huang Lu, a pouty force of nature), a blowsy party girl who shacks up with him in his room, thus adding a sexy little edge to this otherwise somewhat dry narrative thread. Elsewhere, visual interest is added via the use of sudden zooms and iris shots, gracefully rendered by DP Xu Ranjun.

The sequences involving the other plot line centered around the children is more conventionally framed and feels altogether more accessible. Coaxing charmingly relaxed and naturalistic performances from the kids, Qiu fashions a credible portrait of preteen co-ed friendship among an assortment of tykes. Young Xiahao here is pals with pretty girl Foxy (Qian Xuanyi), Foxy’s best frenemy Fang Tin (Xu Shuo) and kids with what sound like derogatory nicknames — Fatty (Chen Yihao), Old Timer (Xu Chenghui) and Coal (Chen Zhihao) — but which they clearly don’t mind having as handles.

Outside of school, the six of them laze around in a heap, shooting the breeze, or go on adventures through the crumbling buildings nearby or in some idyllic-looking woods where they steal wild bird eggs and spot avian rarities. Toward the end of their storyline, a long march to find the missing Fatty results in each of the gang disappearing one by one in mildly mysterious fashion, but there’s not a strong sense of threat, just slightly increasing menace.

In the press notes, director Qiu talks in airy fashion about how the film is about memory and how the land itself becomes a physical manifestation of forgetting and so on, but not much of that is easily extractable from the film itself on a first viewing. Nevertheless, Qiu’s confidence and ambition as a filmmaker is evident, and premiering at avant-garde-inclined Locarno should be an ideal launching pad for a career on the art house fringe.

Production: A Beijing Transcend Pictures Entertainment, Quasar Films, Cforce Pictures, Beijing Yoshow Films, Three Monkeys Films. Shanghai, Beijing Chase Pictures, Kiframe Studio, Flash Forward Entertainment presentation of a Chan Films, Flash Forward Entertainment production
Cast: Lee Mason, Huang Lu, Gong Zihan, Deng Jing, Xiao Xiao, Wang Xinyu, Liu Mulligan, Qian Xuanyi, Xu Shuo
Director-screenwriter: Qiu Sheng
Producers: Huang Patrick Mao, Chen Jingsu
Co-producers: Wuyi, Liu Xiang, Han Tian
Director of photography: Xu Ranjun
Art director: Yu Ziyang
Editors: Liao Qingsong, Jin Di
Music: Xiaohe
Venue: Locarno Film Festival (Concorso Cineasti del presente)
Sales: Luxbox & Flash Forward Entertainment

118 minutes