At first glance, one might describe “Suburban Birds” as telling two parallel stories. But whether those strands are truly parallel — as opposed to successive, perpendicular, diagonally intersecting, or merely floating arbitrarily around each other in a soft fever dream — is the first of many question marks in Chinese writer-director Qiu Sheng’s perplexing but oddly alluring debut feature. Taking inspiration from Kafka as well as the relaxed temporal puzzling of Hong Sang-soo’s most playful work, the film’s focus drifts elegantly between an engineer uncovering more than just structural rubble while assessing a ruined residential site for redevelopment, and an end-of-innocence portrait of children roaming the same suburban terrain: perhaps in its past, its future or, somehow, both.
Premiering in Locarno’s Cinema of the Present program — where Qiu’s otherwise eccentric ambiguities of shaping and storytelling more or less meet the status quo — “Suburban Birds” is commitedly commerce-averse festival fare that should dart happily across the globe from one experimentally-inclined sidebar to the next. Only adventurous arthouse distributors need apply, of course, though the film could conceivably secure some limited engagements, particularly if further prizes follow its recent best-in-show win at China’s Xining fest. (That said, a trim or two from a currently over-languorous two-hour running time certainly wouldn’t hurt its sales chances.)
Qiu immediately announces the hazy uncertainties of his film’s perspective in bluntly visual fashion, blurring the edges of the lens-distorted frame as he introduces his nominal protagonist Hao (Mason Lee), a young structural surveyor sizing up the suitability of a ruined housing estate before construction begins on a new subway below. There’s general disagreement between Hao and his colleagues as to how they should proceed, as well as what caused the estate’s disintegration in the first place: Geomorphic factors may be at play, though it’s hard to rule out dreamier forces of the uncanny, particularly as it appears Hao’s connection to the site may run deeper than he lets on, or even knows.
In an abandoned schoolhouse amid the ruins, Hao finds a student’s diary that unlocks the film’s second narrative, as it tells of a group of pre-teen friends set on an enigmatic quest when one of their number goes unaccountably missing. As they hike through their immediate neighborhood and surrounding woodlands, individual members quietly and mysteriously peel away from the group — these individual vanishings causing only a fillip of concern amid the otherwise woozy, summer-soaked atmosphere of proceedings.
Unfurling like a breeze-ruffled, slow-cinema spin on “Stand By Me,” the kids’ escapades make up the film’s warmer, slightly more scrutable half, tonally distinct from the brittler workplace comedy of the engineers’ shaggy-dog assignment. In particular, Qiu and cinematographer Xu Ranjun (working in boxy Academy ratio that connotes either nostalgia or claustrophobia with a change of light) deftly use camera motion to mark the back-and-forth shift between the two: The adult story is heavy on choppy, discomfiting zooms, the children’s tale all serene, sun-slowed tracking and panning.
Less tidily demarcated is how these narratives communicate with each other, despite the apparent framing device of the diary. The children’s story is shown primarily from the perspective of a boy (Gong Zihan) also named Hao: Is he simply the surveyor’s younger self, carrying a simple reminiscence in flashback, or there a more oblique spiritual affiliation between them? As their paths sporadically intersect on screen in slight, droll ways, the film’s already fragile timeline turns in on itself entirely: There’s a wittily deliberate irony, surely, in imposing this level of structural collapse on a protagonist whose very profession works against such chaos. In press notes, Qiu cites Kafka’s “The Castle” as a specific reference point: He does duly strand both Haos in investigations that seem increasingly answerless, though there’s an overriding sense of calm to its existential tizzy. Viewers, too, may feel at once cast adrift in the film’s amorphous quests, and languidly seduced by its disorder.