It is no secret that some books are more challenging than others. Even in the realm of adult fiction, a drugstore romance novel, unfairly or not, lacks the similar literary gravitas as say Gravity’s Rainbow. I don’t necessarily think that an increased degree of difficulty makes a piece any better or worse either; just different, as they both offer different pleasures.
This concept applies just as strongly to cinema. If you were to draw a binary, one could easily build a divide between easy entertainment for a mass audience, and the pictures that are hard to watch. The pictures that may feature antithetical subject matter, are narratively obtuse, are slower than molasses, or are just difficult to comprehend.
For these truly difficult films I’m of the opinion that the beauty is found within the attempt at the solution, and not within the solution itself. This is probably why I enjoyed Qui Sheng’s Suburban Birds to the extent that I did. Qui’s work isn’t difficult because it’s slow, or because its content is particularly troubling. It’s difficult because it just is, the cinematic equivalent to prose written without grammatical care, far more attuned to the rhythms and moods inherent to the world of its own story. It’s a challenging piece, but will be rewarding to those willing to offer an attempt at a solution.
Suburban Birds is the story of an investigative engineer team tasked with discerning the cause of a ground subsidence. The world is askew, and Hao (Mason Lee) stumbles upon an abandoned classroom. In it lays his childhood diary that sparks memories of young Hao and his friend group that may hold the answer to what occurred so long ago. The film is loosely based on real events, namely, the collapse of a Sichuan children’s school in 2008.
There’s been a recent tendency of Chinese cinema to focus upon ghostly urban spaces. Films such as Black Coal, Thin Ice; Kaili Blues; and An Elephant Sitting Still, exist with an aesthetic of disparate urbanism. Think the unnamed locales of classic noirs but now dragged into stark colour. It’s the cold and unfeeling reality of urban living, manifested onto the setting itself. Easily my favourite part of Suburban Birds is just how the film plays within this space. Qui’s film seems to be more Jia Zhang-ke’s Still Life than a Daio Yi’nan film, as the film is ripe with imagery of buildings demarcated for demolition.
Still Life is probably the most direct comparison point. Qui uses the same backbeat of pounding construction as a sort of impromptu score. Suburban Birds could be likened to a ghost story in some respects, of a town perpetually on the precipice of being re-gentrified. The aesthetics aren’t so much of an urban any space, but rather, that of a space evocative of the persistent feeling of longing and loss.
Qui’s use of cinematic aesthetics, however, also contains great meaning. The first thing viewers will likely notice, is the film’s 4:3 aspect ratio. It’s not merely a gimmick here though. Qui uses it to divide character spatially. In one scene where four people are at dinner, Qui centres each new speaker within the frame. The effect suggests that each of these characters finds themselves divided form their counterparts. Several shots come the viewfinder of a levelling tool. On many an occasion, the camera uses fast zooms to rapidly change the focal point of a given shot. If there is one thing I hope most will take out of Suburban Birds, it is that cinematographer Xu Ranjun truly has a well-constructed eye.
That’s probably secondary though to the film’s tough to parse narrative. The difficulty of Suburban Birds, stems from the film’s loosely disjunctive narrative. At around the midpoint, the film switches from being a story about a geology team, to being Lord of the Flies, a new story about a group of children trying to find their way in a puzzling world. Moments of these children interacting with their environment around them are pointedly evocative. One of my favourites in particular involves the gang pretending to ride a destroyed bus. This moment speaks volumes about the world as seen through the eyes of children.
The quickest way that I can communicate this film’s tendencies to you is that the film is very much a capital “A” art film in the 21st century. This is filmmaking by scaffolding, removing supports as the film sees fit. The effect can be disorienting. You will attempt to level out and find balance, but such endeavours likely will prove unsuccessful. The attempt is the key though; it is there that you’ll find the beauty.