Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Mar 23, 2019 1:40 pm 
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Strange Chinese debut lodged in the suburbs mixes the dry and arty with the charming and nostalgic

The frame tale of this directorial debut from China, if it can be seen as that, focuses on a group of young surveyors recording or investigating tall buildings that are sinking in a suburban area. They need information on the subsidence of the land in preparation for a subway construction project that is being held up till their report's completion. There are ample references to the waste and destruction and mass dislocation of modern China. Meanwhile, the larger, more rambling center section follows half a dozen school children, great pals, who wear red Communist Children's League of China bandanas (at all times!). They are cute and charming and play at various games, including a full-scale battle with toy automatic weapons. Some of them have nicknames like Foxy (Qian Xuanyi), Fatty (Chen Yihao), Old Timer (Xu Chenghui), Coal (Chen Zhihao) or Radish. There is an idyllic, nostalgic quality about these summertime pre-teen scenes.

One character, Xiahao, seems to occur both as an adult surveyor (played by Mason Lee, son of Ang Lee) and one of the kids (played by Gong Zihan), though it's not a sure thing these aren't just two different Xiahaos. Guy Lodge of Variety points out the two worlds are distinguished by two visual styles: "The adult story is heavy on choppy, discomfiting zooms, the children’s tale all serene, sun-slowed tracking and panning." Both make use of occasional fast zooms, somewhat in the manner of Hong Sang-soo.

Among the surveyors, who are all staying in a soulless hotel, there is disagreement over the cause of the subsiding land, while Officer Jiang (Wang Xinyu) just represent's the party's interest in rushing through the survey so as to get the subway project under way fast no matter what. At the hotel Xiahao meets a loose young woman, Swallow (Huang Lu) and they have sex, introducing a messier, more sensual note into the otherwise cool, tidy story whose tone is set by the neat appearance of the young men and the orderliness of their activity involving leisurely calculations and measurements.

In her review for Hollywood Reporter, Leslie Felperin points out the two sets of characters are unrelated, but are related. There are inexplicable rhymes, and the kids are playing in the same neighborhood where the surveying is going on. The narrative link and signal for the childhood recollections to begin is the finding of a student's diary by the adult Xiahao.

Director Qiu has coaxed wonderfully natural and relaxed performances out of the child actors. To underline the kids' friendship, when they come home to relax, they lie all over each other in a friendly clump. Something like that is echoed between two of the adult guys in the final shot, when the children, who otherwise may have seemed to be many years earlier in time, are also present singing the Communist Youth song in the same woods.

At the end among the kids, Fatty disappears, and the rest of the half dozen go looking for him, then one by one they each themselves disappear. The literal "suburban bird", which interests both Xiahaos, is the rare Sialia Suburbium, which Swallow tells the adult Xiahao does not exist. Then the focus returns to the surveyors, finally ending with another flashback, but to a more recent time.

There is a review on[ where the writer, Andrew Heskins, points out the film is half "non-linear and experimental" and half a "heart-warming coming-of-age drama." A review by the knowledgeable but hard to please former Variety critic Derek Elley for Sino-Cinema disparagingly calls this film a "vague elegy for simpler times" (referring to the idyllic life of the young kids, no doubt) that's "an empty can, and too film schooly for its own good." Guy Lodge calls it "a seductively inscrutable puzzler," and that puts it well: it's both off-putting and fun to watch.

Suburban Birds/郊区的鸟/Jiao qu de niao, 118 mins., debuted 24 Jul. 2018 at Xining First Film Festival, and in Europe at Locarno, showing also at three other festivals. It was screened for this review as part of The MoMA-Film Society of Lincoln Center series New Directors/New Films, Mar. 2019.

Showtimes: March 31, 3:00 PM; April 2, 8:45 PM
North American Premiere · Q&As with Qiu Sheng on March 31 & April 2



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