Homesick Blues: Urban Malaise in “Suburban Birds” and “Closing Time”
Much has been said and written in regards to the sprawling urbanization and industrialization of Southern Asia — with analysis ranging from its effects on local culture, economy, education, class structure, and general quality of life of the inhabitants of the continent’s largest cities. This specific theme cropped up in two of the films included in this year’s installment of Concorso Cineasti del presente, Locarno Film Festival’s dedicated section for first- and second-time directors: Qiu Sheng’s Suburban Birds (2018) and Nicole Vögele’s Closing Time (2018). Although both films approach the theme using pointedly different aesthetics, visual metaphors, and techniques, what these two debut features have in common is a sensibility towards how urban areas are essentially (and existentially) suffocating, both offering an escape in the form of natural landscapes, which here offer a sense of release from the trappings of modern life, a point of return to people who’ve lost touch with their intrinsic selves. The two films also share a similarity in terms of setting: while Qiu Sheng’s bittersweet comedy is set in a nondescript town in the mainland, People’s Republic of China, Vögele’s slow-paced, contemplative piece takes place in the heart of Taipei, in Taiwan (or Republic of China). As both states claim legitimacy towards being the “true” Chinese Republic while espousing different official ideologies — one is a communist state, the other a democratic state based on free trade — specific elements in both films hint at subtle elements of social critique.
Suburban Birds, Qiu Sheng’s debut feature, blends comedic and wistful elements, with the looming threat of dehumanization, in a parable about China’s rapid urbanization. Set in an unremarkable town, the film follows two main plotlines: that of Hao (Mason Lee), a young engineer working on a surveying project set to determine the source of several craters that are sprouting all across the city; and that of a younger Hao (Gong Zihan), who is in middle school and is spending his afternoons playing with his friends, mostly around disaffected worksites, in a neighborhood that is set to be radically modernized (and largely demolished). Although it functions primarily as a coming-of-age film of sorts, with its exploration of both childhood and early adulthood, it’s never really explained if the two main characters are one and the same person, if the younger Hao’s storyline is a flashback, or if the two protagonists are living parallel lives. What remains certain is that the two complementary storylines illustrate how one relates to urban areas — wide-eyed and amazed, seeing each space as a playground with infinite possibilities (walls to climb over, crevices to hide in, places to explore), or as a suffocating, even hostile terrain, where everything is subject to scrutiny and regulation, lest one small misstep or miscalculation may bring forward loss of life and capital. Sheng uses these two opposite yet overlapping perspectives to put forward a subtle critique of the Chinese Communist Party’s official discourse. Older Hao’s supervisor is an apparatchik that sees the surveyors’ work as an annoying formality and goads them on to finish quickly, while the kids’ teacher holds a propagandistic lesson about urban development, a thinly-veiled attempt towards teaching them to praise the government. Camouflaging its critique underneath its copious amounts of humor, Suburban Birds uses absurdist comedic elements that recalls the works of Roy Andersson, as the characters act in ways that lead to silly outcomes, such as one scene in which the kids accidentally destroy the prospectors’ equipment as they’re all inexplicably napping in an open field. One recurring element in Suburban Birds’ cinematography compliments its comedic aims, highlighting the city as an environment in which lives clash in weird, inexplicable ways: its extensive use of zooms and dynamic camera movements within lengthier shots highlight strange characters and situations deep in the background of the scene (like a man who’s bizarrely climbing up a telephone pole somewhere in the distance). Towards the end of the film, however, with a breakdown in elder Hao’s life becoming more and more evident, the zoom effect is put to use in a dramatic, Hong Sang-soo-like manner: as he breaks down crying for no apparent reason, one cannot wonder if he’s being overwhelmed by the loss of his childlike innocence.
By contrast, Nicole Vögele’s Closing Time mostly shies away from overt aesthetic flourishes, approaching its subjects using an observational, fly-on-the-wall perspective. There are little to no tracking shots and so few camera pans that one could almost count them on one hand. On the other hand, Vögele makes extensive use of long, static shots with an ample mise-en-scène that don’t necessarily add to the story in terms of narrative, but it’s very much an approach rooted in the theories of André Bazin, which allows for multiple focal points to be followed within a single frame, ranging from intricate static elements to moments of quotidian choreography: the passage of cars, humans and stray dogs across the streets of Taipei during nighttime — a city that is arguably the film’s main character. This somewhat somber visual approach compliments the feature’s subdued, naturalistic tone; the film follows several protagonists working blue collar jobs, paying attention to the minutiae of their professions (usually in spaces that are either claustrophobically small or completely impersonal) while intercutting scenes from the city’s streets. Vögele’s use of metaphors is also very subtle, as she’s working with bits and pieces of day-to-day poetry. One lengthy, touching scene portrays a karate class as seen from the street-facing windows of the dojo, as the pupils are studying how to fall properly — a profound statement on how the characters themselves are pulling forward through their almost maddening routines. Closing Time preoccupies itself with discovering glimpses of humanity in an environment that is at best monotonous, at worst dehumanizing. From languid shots of fish floating in a huge tank or a woman playing a Candy Crush-like game on an old desktop computer, to scenes set inside karaoke bars, where the songs’ overtly romantic, cheesy lyrics clash with the characters’ lackluster lifestyles, the atmosphere seems overwhelmingly claustrophobic. This tone is also fueled by a thematic subplot concerned with economic difficulties; Mr. Kuo, a restauranteur who comes closest to being a main character in the film, is often seen haggling in the marketplace as he’s buying fresh produce for his food stall, commenting on rising prices and how increasingly hard it is for him to make a living. All characters subside on uncertain, unstable incomes that imply repetitive, precarious work typical of marginal members of capitalist societies. It’s no wonder that the film ends with Mr. Kuo intentionally taking a wrong turn on the motorway and escaping to a village deep in the woods.
Beyond their focus on urbanity, what unites Suburban Birds and Closing Time are their similar finales: both end with lengthy sequences in which their characters visit seemingly endless forests — these serene, soothing scenes acting as a means to hammer in the underlying message that urban spaces are tantamount to prisons. As with most commentaries on the urbanization of Eastern Asia, the underlying message is that it’s a lifestyle deeply incompatible with the local culture, as modern cities, bureaucracies, and economies are largely constructed according to a Western model. It’s a soft critique aimed at the lasting effects of European imperialism, of how Asian states have been forced to radically change in a globalized era according to rules beyond their control. In this light, the characters’ ultimate refuge amidst nature comes across as a larger, more ambitious metaphor than initially meets the eye. It’s also a symbolic return to their origins, beyond the lasting political traumas that have shaped their lives.