Suburban Birds: Tracing Our Way Back, by Scott Nye
Suburban Birds, one of a handful of impressive debut films to make their way from China to the United States over the past few years, is like its predecessors (I’m thinking especially of Kaili Blues and An Elephant Sitting Still) a bold formal volley that uses a certain experimental approach to draw out a sense of dislocation and modern ennui. Unlike the alienated characters of mid-century European art, those of contemporary Chinese cinema are not well off, and often quite poor. Qiu Sheng’s Suburban Birds starts amidst a crew surveying recent, inexplicable potholes that have started to develop throughout a city, and a love affair that develops between a young evacuee from the affected area and our main point of contact, a young man named Xiahao (Mason Lee). Neither proves very satisfying work for anyone involved.
Xiahao’s sense of displacement becomes more acute when he tours an abandoned school they’re surveying and finds a diary written by a young boy also named Xiahao. Taking an interest, the adult Xiahao reads through it, opening up the boy’s life – he’s around 10 or 11, goes on adventures with his friends, and has a budding interest in a girl in his class, Fang Tin (Xu Shuo). Little of their home lives are shown; in fact, much like Charlie Brown, there rarely seems to be an adult in sight. They go to school and have a curfew, but the adult world exists as something apart from them. Their friends go by bizarre nicknames – Foxy, Coal, Fatty, Old Timer – as though this diary is actually the adult Xiahao’s and he’s remembering his childhood friends only by loose associations, having long ago forgotten their names. I can’t remember the names of many of my third-grade friends either.
For that matter, the diary could very well be Xiahao’s, and the boy and man could be one and same. Or they could be completely different people. But after he reads it, Xiahao’s world starts to change, and events in the diary start to repeat themselves in slightly familiar ways. Other characters will make observations that the boy’s friends did, or the girl he’s romancing (who also bears an odd nickname – Swallow) will appear in a similar light as the boy’s crush. An amateur haircut is re-attempted. Even objects seem to recur, and the kids at one point wander past the surveyors as they sleep.
Whatever puzzle Qiu has developed, if indeed it could be called a puzzle, is less interesting than the way he teases it out, and what it reveals in the meantime. The adult Xiahao’s life is photographed more clinically, more concerned with capturing the precise actions of those involved, utilizing a stable camera and, whenever possible, fixed frame. The children are by contrast photographed more romantically, using handheld and close-ups and bright sunlight to depict a more hopeful time when the scrapiest pile of trash could unlock an adventure. The film digs out especially well that pre-sexual feeling of romance, when affections have almost no physical expression beyond a hug, as that’s all you can conceive and in many ways all you could want. The kids make fun of Fatty for always hugging them goodbye during their walks home, but when Fang Tin hugs him, the appeal of warmth and understanding is immediately clear.
Not that the boy’s world doesn’t have its share of more blatant mysteries. One day, Fatty doesn’t turn up for class and, worried about him, the gang sets off after him. Only Foxy has been to his house, but as she gradually becomes less sure of her way, the kids begin to drop off, and they ultimately never make it to his house; not long after, we leave the kids behind entirely. So much of the film becomes about this feeling of childhood falling away, the intense bonds no longer applying – nobody on Xiahao’s crew is going to come searching for him if he doesn’t show up to work; the girl he’s sleeping with won’t write notes and riddles for him the way Fang Tin does – and adult life with few joys left to replace those. The crew work seems unlikely to yield much of a career, and there aren’t enough other jobs to be had. Aside from sometimes Facebook, we never know where those friends we make in grade school ended up, and we silently know that even if we could find them, we probably wouldn’t know what to talk about or do.
Beyond the intellectual curiosity this film stimulates, it’s those lasting impressions, those traces of feeling for which I suspect I will best remember it.