Set against the backdrop of contemporary China’s technocratic and dissimulated culture industry, Huang Ji and Ryuji Otsuka’s contemplatively paced film The Foolish Bird articulates a moral gaze towards China’s disgruntled and alienated youth, a sector fully consolidated into China’s technocratic system. It argues on the surface that the problems of youth sector is symptomatic of a bigger societal problem: the displacement of the family structure in China’s aggressive development as an imperialist state. As a whole, the film particularly sketches a cautionary rationalization of the youth’s alienated condition.
In the film, Lynn (Yao Honggui) is the ‘foolish bird’, a sixteen year old high-school, who, like many Chinese children and adolescents of contemporary China, is left behind in the custody of her grandparents while her parents work in urban centres far away from home. Without any traditional family structure regulating her activities, Lynn is free to roam the streets at night, to join overnight parties, and also to engage in illegal activities such as smuggling and reselling of confiscated cellular phones in her school.
However, The Foolish Bird’s style may not be entirely moralizing. Its stylistics says otherwise. Instead of using the suture effect of popular cinema, it places a camera from a distance, as if witnessing, while also maintaining a meticulously observant image of subjects in the execution of its shallow shots. In general, its cinematographic effect attempts a kind of fragile realism keenly self-aware of its function of distancing in the film. Huang and Otsuka are careful not to disturb the rhythmic passage of time and distort the spatial design of the film that fully grounds it to the Chinese social sphere.
The film’s aporia is its insistence of a place – Lynn’s place, a mobile place, a woman’s place, impermanent yet vacuous, a place which is always already under erasure. Lynn is a mobile bird looking for a home, looking for love, and yet, she ended up in the wrong side of law, in the wrong side of social order, wrong company of people, which gradually accumulated into a host of other problems. The film narrative is an accumulation of Lynn’s mistakes, seemingly putting her into blame – ‘here is Lynn and she made mistakes because of her foolishness’ – a bird whose adolescent awkwardness lacks the social imagination of a mature adult persona. Shall we blame her for her mistakes? Maybe, but the film argues otherwise.
As the film waltz into the realm of the sexual – Lynn, who insisted that she was raped, tries to recover a first experience, maybe perhaps to justify her pregnancy, to erase her pregnancy due to rape, she invites her lover for sexual tryst which ended up badly. She was humiliated after her lover discovered that she is not a virgin. She cried, yet while her lover disowns her over her non-virginity, we do not see the lover. Her lover is off-camera; her face filling-up the dimensions of screen. What we are witnessing is a complex image of a young woman in the face of patriarchal forces at work: her immediate patriarchal family unit, who never really cared for her; the law and its punitive institutions; the male ego and its privileging of the virginal woman; the Chinese state and its total neglect of the plight of its women.
As a character study, The Foolish Bird is inclined to deconstruct the idea of the heroine, by deploying a realism the shatters any form of mysticism of Lynn’s character. She is not an avenging angel, but she knows the idea of justice, the idea of oppression. We see her act according to her means, her own resources in pursuing a kind of social investigation into the toxic masculinity that runs in her neighbourhood. She is fragile yet persisting; she is determined to cast a stone on her oppressors. She works alone, but she is not anti-social; she cares for her friend May (Yao Fang), who, like her, was also raped in the same party that she attended, and, as a result, led to her friend’s suicide. She also care for her lover. Yet she is, most of the time, a figure of independence.
Lynn is not the foolish bird at all that the film insists. She is the face of China’s disenfranchised youth sector, a sector bullied by its own patriarchal structure. Like the disenfranchised youth of Hu Bo’s An Elephant Sitting Still (2018), the film constructs the youth as an expression of critique of China’s contemporary social conditions. Lynn’s conflicts has also revealed the extent of debt economy in her local. Chinese government’s conservative control of its technocratic enterprise has led Lynn to consider smuggling phones. Indeed, it shows that the means of subsistence of Lynn’s immediate family is not enough to allow her to afford luxuries. She earns extra cash from re-selling confiscated phones, while in the process accumulating debt. In the end, when she was caught, her grandfather has to pay 4,000 yuans to her classmates, who were the rightful owners of the confiscated phones, just to appease their parents. This amount proves to be difficult to accumulated given their desolate economic status.
Huang and Otsuka’s The Foolish Bird is more than an expression of foolishness of Chinese youth. It is an expression of anger. With its slow pacing, the figure of anger builds up, slowly constructing a singular image of the disenfranchised women of China, effaced, silenced, and under erasure by the patriarchy that discombobulate her. What could be her future? At the end of the film, Lynn, overwhelmed by her fate, throws her phone in the river. As Lynn bikes away from the audience, she is still a bird but definitely not a foolish one anymore. The film’s ending seems to suggest a radical opening, a defiance, but a defiance of what? The technocratic state and its patriarchal conduits? The film does not resolve this fact. Instead, it unfolds in the open.