Like the beautiful “Wrath of Silence” last year, “Suburban Birds” premiered at debut-only FIRST Festival in Xining, China, and has now landed at London Film Festival. Written and directed by Qiu Sheng, “Suburban Birds” is enigmatic and poetic and fits snugly in the “magical realism” category as two distinct strands run parallel through the movie and the intertwining connections are blurry and slippery to catch.
A team of three land surveyors, Xiahao (Mason Lee), Ant (Deng Jing) and their boss Han (Xiao Xiao) is on a work mission in a suburban area to discover the entity of a sudden subsidence of the ground causing the buildings to tilt and making it unsafe for the new subway to be approved. In their inspection, they are tightly followed by Officer Jiang (Wang Xinyu) who represents the economical or political interest in the subway project and who shortly becomes a drinking and eating comrade of the group.
While interviewing some of the evacuated inhabitants of the damaged buildings Xiahao sets eyes on a pretty girl called Swallow (Huang Lu) who happens to be staying in the same hotel as the team and soon the two become close. One day Xiahao is inspecting a school building and suddenly this setting becomes the “portal” to a parallel story.
In the same suburban area but in an undefined time, a group of preteen children with funny nicknames – and one enigmatically called Xiahao too – are all at school together and they are good friends despite their differences. They spend lazy afternoons playing idyllically in the fields, hunting for bird nests and eggs, and making up epic battles in the scrubland near unfinished buildings. The movie takes its time to show us the rich dynamics between them until one day, Fatty doesn’t show up at school and the gang sets off for a visit at his home. Only Foxy knows (barely) where he lives and she is appointed to lead the march. The group seems to walk for a very long time through alternating landscapes of green fields and futuristic buildings and the children, one by one, begin to drop out of the group and disappear.
Meanwhile, back to the initial strand, we find Xiahao in disagreement with his boss on the causes of the subsidence and – just before an inspection to the new underground tunnel – he vanishes.
It is slightly unclear if the children are in the past, hence the memories of the protagonist or a parallel and contemporary story and if the child called Xiahao is actually the same now-adult Xiahao. However, the land is clearly the common denominator of the two story-lines. While the surveyors examine an abused and brutalized land, the children witness the change occurring to it. Their long final journey from the wood to big tower blocks, along the river and crossing the railway, oozes a strong allegoric sense and the gradually thinning group seems to symbolize the inevitable loss of childhood and of the genuine bonds that the pre-development land had created.
The mildly derogatory nicknames of the children suggest different family backgrounds and make their bond even more special; they – in some way – mirror the characters in the first strand but the adults’ dynamics are not quite right and slowly the group crumbles and fails.
The unusual, old-school 4:3 aspect ratio gives a distinct flavor of nostalgia to the movie and donates intimacy to the view; in fact, the very first scenes of “Suburban Birds” are seen through the lens of a surveyor’s optical level. And while the children strand is filmed in a conventional and luminous mode, the adult one is more stylized, showing off some very elegantly framed scenes, still camerawork and abrupt zooming-in (in a Hong Sang-soo style) that work particularly well with the 4:3.
Qiu Sheng’s debut is a nostalgic and magical take on the very aching theme in Chinese independent cinema of the fast land exploitation and its effect on the human dynamics.