December 11, 2019

‘Suburban Birds’ provokes feelings of nostalgia

Sophomore film studies major Joshua Campbell reviews Sheng Qui’s feature film.

In the early 2000s, I lived in the country. Not quite the yee-haw country but it was about a 15 minute drive to get to the nearest grocery store. Trees were all over every hill for miles around. Now, there’s a Walmart right down the road. They actually sawed off the top of one of the hills to put it there. A lot has changed in the nearly 20 years since I was a kid, much like a lot has changed for Xia Hao, the protagonist of Sheng Qui’s debut film, “Suburban Birds.” 

Hao inhabits a world in flux. As a member of an engineering team, he has been tasked with surveying a suburban town in mainland China. A building has collapsed into a sinkhole, halting construction on a new subway. It’s mundane work as Hao and his team wander through the apocalyptic landscape of a town being swallowed by an expanding city. Backhoes and bulldozers feast on the remains of apartment complexes reduced to rubble. An ever present fog seems to connect all these places into a single space, one where time and place don’t seem to matter. 

On one outing Hao wanders into a classroom where he finds a journal. It then cuts to a new story, a title card telling us that it is Aug. but the year isn’t indicated. Viewers meet a band of young children who live in the suburb, one of them also named Xia Hao. At this point, the film shifts to a Bildungsroman as we are given a glimpse into the lives of preteens whose physical and mental world is changing. They come from low income homes, dress in wrinkled t-shirts and run through the rubble without thinking about any of these details. Instead, they occupy themselves with sleepovers, pellet gun wars and relationships initiated through notes written in class. Childhood pastimes take on a mythical significance in Qui’s script. All of it seems to be fading away as fast as it occurs, like watching nostalgia take its roots.

What makes this section of the film so intriguing is Qui’s understanding of not only children but the politics of childhood friendship. Young Hao and his companions stumble through interactions wrought with subtle hints at differing economic status and troubled home lives, all of which seems to be beyond their understanding and attention spans. These details come into focus later in their lives though, perhaps when they revisit these locations in the future. The most poignant of these events involves young Hao’s friend, Foxy, taking the group on a journey. It resembles an intriguing blend of “Stand By Me” and Tarkovsky’s Stalker, with an enigmatic conclusion that sends us back to older Hao’s surveying work in the area. 

Enigmatic is probably the best way to describe Sheng Qui’s feature. Those looking for closure and explanations will be discouraged as almost all the film’s threads conclude with frayed uncertainty. Once within that uncertainty, a patient viewer will find plenty to contemplate and questions of how our childhood shapes our future. It also brings up the idea of how the mental landscape of our past gets demolished to make way for our future and how nostalgia shapes our present point of view. The way the film manages to illustrate such inquiries both thematically and visually is a testament to the talent of Qui as a writer and director. 

Those willing to follow him down the rabbit hole of memory will thoroughly enjoy “Suburban Birds.” They might find themselves asking how a Walmart replaced the hilltops of their hometown.

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