Sunday, March 13, 2022

Suburban Birds, on

They build fast in China. Sometimes that means public works projects come crashing down even faster, like the shoddily constructed schools in Sichuan. A structural surveyor is worried something like that could happen in one of China’s artificially constructed suburban developments. Xia Hao’s boss does not want to hear it, but he remains concerned. Perhaps because he grew up in the suburban neighborhood. Or perhaps he did not. The connection between the two narrative strands is always ambiguous in Qiu Sheng’s Suburban Birds, which premieres Wednesday on

The ground beneath the local school and a small working-class apartment building has shifted enough to force their closure. It is Xia Hao’s job to determine if the issue is wide-spread or localized to the two buildings. He suspects there is a major subsidence problem due to subway construction, but his boss has already decided everything is fine.

While surveying the school, Xia Hao finds the journal of a young boy, coincidentally of the same name. He and his schoolmates enjoy (or maybe rather enjoyed) playing gun fights, even though they are just starting to realize the romantic possibilities of their platonic girl friends. Yet, one day, when they realize their pal Fatty has been absent many days from school, they set out to visit him, in one of the further housing project behemoths.

Of course, this is the same group of friends that sometimes spies on the surveyors at work and eventually pranks them rather obnoxiously. The thing is, it is hard to tell whether for time-looping self-referentialism or if these are two distinct groups of characters that do indeed inhabit the same time frame and geographic space. As a result, Qiu probably does not pull off what he sets out to do.

Still, it is somewhat interesting to watch his balancing act. The kids’ sequences largely have the bittersweet nostalgic tone of a film like Kore-eda’s
I Wish, while the adult surveyors’ scenes share the atmosphere of mystery found in Vivian Qu’s Trap Street (which coincidentally was also about a surveyor). There is also some not-so thinly veiled commentary regarding development and governmental oversight in Mainland China. Perhaps tellingly, Xia Hao’s team is often accompanied by a local Party rep, who never seems overly obsessed with public safety.

Qiu also handles his youthful cast quite remarkably, getting some completely natural-feeling and often quite poignant performances from them. Shuo Xu and Qian Xuanyi are terrific as Fang Tin and Foxy, who are so sure they still want to be part of the boys. Xu Chenghui and Chen Yihao also create strong personalities as Old Timer (an older boy held back) and Fatty. However, the adults are largely cold and cipher-like. Even Mason Lee’s adult Xia Hao and Lu Huang, as Swallow (a displaced hairdresser he gets romantically involved with) never really develop much emotional chemistry together.

Still, if only every film that didn’t quite connect were as interesting as
Suburban Birds. Its concerns regarding Chinese construction safety are more than valid and it also features some great youthful performances. It just tries to overcomplicate matters to its own detriment. Hardcore cineastes who have will probably get something from it when it starts streaming this Wednesday (3/16).