Crumbling Memories: Qiu Sheng Puzzles & Dazzles with Promising, Bittersweet Debut
Making his feature debut after his five short films, director and screenwriter Qiu Sheng announces himself on the international stage with an oblique drama built around memories of youth, collapsing buildings and a sense of nostalgic longing. Odd and mysterious in ways that seem at times profoundly genuine, while appearing at other times coldly engineered to exploit the poetics of empty signifiers, Suburban Birds leaves this ambivalence (along with a few others) for the viewers to figure out, confident in the fact that the director’s elegiac voice is original and affecting enough to overcome suspicions.
Unbundling temporality and causality, Sheng’s script hinges around two quests, one for measurements (taken by protagonist Hao and his team of engineers to determine which buildings are affected by ground subsidence in a suburban area) and the other to locate a disappeared teenager whose group of friends is not going to leave behind. The relation between the two is at the heart of the film’s compelling evasiveness: moments unstuck in time, influencing each other, maybe following and maybe preceding, but always brushing against each other on the same streets. Not only the film lets them dovetail perfectly in the editing and the writing, but it solidifies the pairing through visuals and metaphors, with the adult, scientific side left to grapple with a world of lenses and angles, and inquisitively exposed by Sheng’s use of zooms – frustration is framing things that can never come into focus. Meanwhile, the kids inhabit a more fluid, fable-like plane of existence, in which truths are more easily identified and life has a fuller meaning.
It sounds a bit too neat, granted, but it works on screen because the director is more than willing to smudge it up with comedy, mystery and sometimes downright silliness. Scenes like the one in which the group of surveyors is suddenly found asleep next to a river, with their measuring tool the only thing left standing between them before the kids come in and stick chewing gum to the lens as a prank, go a long way towards undermining the potential pretentiousness of the piece (while still creating an image of perfect thematic resonance).
Whenever Qiu Sheng appears to tip his hat to Jia Zhangke, making you fear he doesn’t (yet?) possess a matching sense of commitment to the socio-political exploration of the territory, he gets right out of that tricky spot and back towards lighter, but never unsubstantial, ground. At that, Suburban Birds resembles sometimes the narrative and existential zig-zagging of another Chinese debut in 2018, Yuan Qing’s Three Adventures of Brooke, similarly capable of morphing from feather-light conversational comedy to deep-cutting meditations on time and friendship in the space of a single city stroll.
Much like the two strands in its story, at odds and yet desperately searching for each other, it’s easy to see Suburban Birds as both an overambitious debut, grasping at stuff that is not entirely there, and – from the future – the revealing first work of a successful director that already contained everything. Time will tell, but sometimes it’s nice to believe what you find in an old school diary, and go bird-watching with friends.