DIARY: SUBURBAN BIRDS at the London Film Festival [11.10.18]

Qiu Sheng’s debut feature SUBURBAN BIRDS aka Jiao Qu De Niao (China, 2018), premiered at the 62nd BFI London Film Festival (11 OCT 18:30, Vue West End). Introduced by BFI programmer Kate Taylor and actor Lu Huang, the film was followed by an audience Q&A. Here’s our writeup.

Films in London: SUBURBAN BIRDS at Vue Leicester Square, part of London Film Festival (11 OCT).
SUBURBAN BIRDS at Vue West End, part of London Film Festival (11 OCT).

“The only real paradise is a lost paradise.”: Lu Huang introduces SUBURBAN BIRDS at the 62nd BFI London Film Festival.

If ambiguity is your cinematic safe space, then this Möbius strip of a movie is for you. Two tales – one of questing youth, the other of awkward adulthood – are interwoven in often elliptical ways, offering few concrete resolutions but ample (subterranean) subtext.

We start out with young structural surveyor Hua (Mason Lee) and his colleagues seeking to discover the causes of a sinking and now abandoned city (the backdrop of China’s rapid industrial growth is ever present in both stories). He discovers the diary of a young boy, also named Hua (Zihan Gong), in the desk of an evacuated classroom. We then cut to a gang of children in the same place, but not necessarily the same time. They too have a discovery to make – the whereabouts of their absent friend, Fatty. We swing, seemingly randomly, between these two sagas.

The two Huas share a name, mixed fortunes in love and a fastidiousness for a good haircut – but are they the same or merely similar? There are other echoes in the members of the fellowships that travel with them; of character, nickname and build. Is one story the past, present or future of the other? Just when you think you know, the Lazy Susan spins again.

Optical instruments play an important role: the surveyor’s theodolite seeks some measured truth whilst a pair of binoculars is dropped over a bridge, to lay in the grass below, light pulsing like a beacon through time, before passing from one storyline to the other. As we peer through these lenses, Qiu Sheng connects, illuminates and distorts the two narratives, isolating detail whilst blurring sound and vision. With so many things being looked for, is anything ever really found?

Films in London: SUBURBAN BIRDS at Vue Leicester Square, part of London Film Festival (11 OCT).
SUBURBAN BIRDS at Vue West End, part of London Film Festival (11 OCT).

“Make my monster grow.”

Coming of age movies typically suggest the ease and innocence of childhood must dismantle into more complex, fragmented adulthood. Whilst there is an inevitable contrast here – a darker, more sinister tone defines the adult scenes, with unsettling zooms, industrial heartbeats on the soundtrack and awkward disconnects between characters plagued by sleep – there are still rich seams of magic, and the chance to reinvent yourself with each sharp new haircut.

With no clear points of arrival, and very few certainties – the apparent beauty of a dawn chorus turns out to be the alarm of a mobile ‘phone – SUBURBAN BIRDS is light on life-affirming epiphanies. Instead, perpetual searching in-between the date-stamp title cards suggests that the ingredients of a rewarding life must always be the subject of our exhaustive search.

Ultimately, the riddle that threads its way through the film is time itself, something that Qiu Sheng plays with continuously in his deeply ambiguous, sometimes mournful, sometimes laugh-out-loud funny debut. The pasts and presents of both people and place remain interwoven in live-play; there is no single story here, merely several possible continuities. Whilst the founding fellowships of our childhoods might peel away, they continue to enrich our journeys as they morph into something else. Like the ceaseless Swallow perhaps, SUBURBAN BIRDS must never stop moving as they seek to mate and migrate.

Films in London: SUBURBAN BIRDS at Vue Leicester Square, part of London Film Festival (11 OCT).
SUBURBAN BIRDS at Vue West End, part of London Film Festival (11 OCT).

MORE QUESTIONS THAN ANSWERS…

The screening was topped and tailed by BFI programmer Kate Taylor and actor Lu Huang (Swallow). The essential question from the audience came early: what, exactly, was the focus of the film?

Startled by seeing it for the first time – and missing some dramatic beats left out in the edit – Lu Huang shared her thoughts about the director’s vision; that “when a person grows up, true feelings are more and more difficult to find”. In turn, Taylor spoke about repression: “what’s under the surface, both in terms of the subsidence – what’s literally under the surface of the town – as well as their relationships and the impact of what happens in youth… on your emotional development.”

Still bathed in the ambiguity of this beautiful film, their guess is as good as ours…

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Featured Image: SUBURBAN BIRDS

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