Qiu Sheng’s debut feature Suburban Birds is a low-key but fascinating work. At first it appears to fall in line as yet another naturalistic urban character drama; the kind that tends to be liberally scattered over international film festivals each year. As the story develops, however, and its second narrative thread enters the picture, a far more complex and interesting piece develops.
Xia Hao (Mason Lee) is one of a group of engineers investigating reported subsidences in a rebuilt Chinese suburb. At the same time another Xia Hao (Gong Xihan), a young boy, plays with his friends among the demolished ruins of the same suburb. As their stories begin to intersect, the respective Haos’ lives appear to cross back and forth through time.
Events start off in a relatively simple fashion: a team of government-appointed engineers are measuring streets and buildings across a nameless city. They are hardly the most disciplined of workers, taking time off to smoke cigarettes, engage in conversation, and even take lengthy afternoon naps by the side of the road. At one stage Hao even drops a pair of binoculars over the side of an overpass and into the bushes below. There is no need to retrieve them, his boss claims, as they can just grab another pair from the office.
When not at work, Hao breaks into an abandoned primary school and finds an abandoned journal in one of the desks. The journal relates the activities of the other Xia Hao, who roams the neighbourhood with a group of friends each day after school. It initially seems obvious that the two Haos are the same person – only then the younger Hao and his friend find the elder Hao’s abandoned binoculars where he dropped them. The two threads may be simultaneous and focus on different Haos. They might be a present day story with a flashback. They might be the other way around. Suburban Birds is a film without easy answers; there is simply a slightly uneasy, somewhat unsettling looseness over how it handles time and narrative.
It seems to fit comfortably alongside a number of Chinese film dramas in recent years, and have much in common with the works of Bi Gan, whose films Kaili Blues (2015) and Long Day’s Journey into Night (2018) also possess a blurry sense of cause-and-effect. In both directors’ works, what is more interesting than how the stories line up is how the different elements inform one another throughout the film. By the second half of Suburban Birds events begin to slide ever so subtly into a sort of mild horrific magical realism: the young Hao and his friends travel to see their mutual friend at his home, only for their journey to begin more elongated and dreamlike as it goes. Qiu does not seem interested in providing answers to any questions his audience may have, and this leaves the film with a sort of narrative ellipsis that expects each viewer to draw their own conclusions.
Technically the film acquits itself admirably, particularly for a first-time feature, with inventive photography and a nostalgic use of a classic 4:3 aspect ratio. As is the common style for contemporary Chinese drama, non-diegetic music is kept to a bare minimum. At close to two hours it does feel overly long, but it does accelerate as it goes. Move beyond the fairly slow first act and the film gets more and more interesting as it unfolds. The lead performances are strong, not just Lee and Gong as the two Haos but also Huang Lu, who is under-utilized as the older Hao’s girlfriend Swallow.
A lot of thought and care has gone into Suburban Birds, and that is reflected in the intriguing manner in which it plays out. As a debut work, it is sensational, and suggests Qiu Sheng is yet another new generation Chinese director on whom to keep an expectant eye.
Grant Watson is an independent film critic based in Melbourne, Australia. He is a two-time winner of the William Atheling Jr Award for Australian science fiction criticism and review. You can find his other reviews at FictionMachine and FilmInk.