Tag Archives: 2018

CAPSULE: SUBURBAN BIRDS (2018)

Jiao qu de niao

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DIRECTED BY: Sheng Qiu

FEATURING: Mason Lee, Zihan Gong

PLOT: A team of engineers investigate the sudden appearance of sinkholes which are forcing them to condemn buildings; the story changes to follow a group of suburban elementary schoolers, with parallels developing between the two tales.

Still from Suburban Birds (2018)

COMMENTS: If Suburban Birds is any indication, the modern Chinese art-house movement will be founded in the spirit of . Cinematography will be privileged over narrative, hazy mysticism will pervade, and timelines will go out of focus as one or more histories coexist at once.

Suburban Birds begins slowly, develops slowly, and ends with two men falling asleep. We start off following Han, part of a four man surveying team investigating unstable buildings in a Chinese city. After a while, Han enters an evacuated school and finds a diary. He reads it, and we then begin following the story of a boy—also named Han—and his school chums. They hunt for birds eggs, engage in pre-adolescent flirtation, play war games with toy guns, and eventually trek off on a long journey to find one of their number who didn’t show up to school that day. This section of the film takes up an inconclusive hour in the middle of the film, and is almost entirely realistic. The temptation is to assume that young Han and old Han are the same character at different times of their lives, but the story steadfastly refuses to commit to that interpretation, and in fact several points undermine it. When we return to old Han—seen awakening from a nap—the movie seems less connected to reality than before, although the dissonances are always subtle. Motifs such as haircuts, a riddle, and a stray dog recur in both stories, and it’s possible to draw parallels between Han’s companions in each hemisphere. It ends with a coda that brings in two new characters, out on a birdwatching trip in the same forest where young Han once roamed.

What it all signifies is anyone’s guess; it’s impossible to tease out a moral from the odd story, which never develops a consistent tone or obvious theme. It does features good, if restrained, acting; the children, especially, are a believable ensemble, without a weak link. The cinematography is superior, with intelligent zooms and pans highlighting important characters and spatial relationships. Memorable visuals include a shot of tufts of grass that change color from lavender to red to green, and a dreamlike interlude where the engineers examine “clues” from inside separate plexiglass enclosures, each lit in a different neon lighting scheme. Suburban Birds may be enjoyed by fans of slow, obliquely mystical cinema in the mold of and the aforementioned Bi Gan, but I found it took far too long in developing its enigmas, which didn’t seem worth the journey.

Suburban Birds got a very limited U.S. release in 2019; a DVD/Blu-ray showed up in 2020, and it can be found for rental on some of the smaller, art-house oriented streaming services.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Qiu shows remarkable facility as he patiently adds layer upon layer to a mystery that wants to stay one. This is not a puzzle film, but its ends are elusive.”–Glenn Kenny, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: THE HOUSE THAT JACK BUILT (2018)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , , Sioban Fallon Hogan, Sofie Gråbøl, , Jeremy Davies

PLOT: Jack (Dillon), an architect–and prolific serial killer–recounts several examples of his “work” and philosophy as Verge (Ganz) leads him on a journey to Hell.

COMMENTS: Due to controversial films like The Idiots, Dancer in the Dark, and Antichrist, among others, Lars von Trier was already considered ‘problematic’ even before his infamous press faux pas at Cannes at the time of Melancholia‘s release. So it’s an interesting conundrum that, in light of his behavior over the years, his work is intellectually engaging and appears (my impression) to have a strong moral center at its core. Jack is much the same. At its Cannes premiere, it gained notoriety when over a hundred audience members walked out during the screening, as well as for for the ten minute standing ovation it received from the remaining audience when it ended.

Originally conceived by von Trier with co-writer Jenle Hallund as an eight-part television series, Jack is a treatise on serial killers and the culture of fascination regarding them. Jack sees murder as an art and himself as amongst the greatest of artists, as he argues to Verge (i.e. Virgil, the poet of “The Aeneid” and guide from “The Divine Comedy”) on their journey. He justifies himself and his acts by pointing  up examples in Nature (the Tyger and the Lamb; the “noble rot”) and Art (poetry of Blake, and the films of one Lars VonTrier).

Despite adopting the non de plume “Mr. Sophistication,” Jack, as portrayed Matt Dillon, is not the Hannibal Lecter type of cultured romantic one ends up liking despite his horrible acts. The film makes clear that Jack is a liar (not a good liar either), and not nearly as smart as he thinks he is, but gets away with his horrible acts because he uses his entitlement and privilege to full advantage. People overlook his behavior until it’s far too late. He acts so obnoxiously that some who might bring him to justice get annoyed and brush him off.  He’s abetted by the naiveté  and obliviousness of his victims, and everyone else; as he yells out of an intended victim’s apartment window, “Nobody wants to help!”

Despite this “success,” Jack’s flaws eventually catch up with him. For all of his lofty pretensions as an “artist” and creator, Jack is unable to complete any sort of life-positive project. His attempts at building a house for himself end in a Sisyphean cycle of frustration; the only structure he succeeds at is a grisly sculpture made from the corpses of his victims, which serves as his literal entrance into Hell. Despite Jack’s spirited arguments and defenses on their journey, Verge isn’t buying any of Jack’s b.s. As he remarks, he’s “heard it all and there’s very little that would surprise him” at this point. Jack’s ultimate fate, likewise, is no surprise at all, though he still thinks there’s a chance he can beat the House. He learns the hard way that the House always wins.

The House that Jack Built is a bleak look at an empty soul in an empty world. It’s also very funny, among the darkest of dark comedies.

Scream Factory released Jack in a 2-disc Blu-ray set in early 2020. It includes the standard theatrical cut, and the unrated cut that played in selected theaters for one night only. Extras includes von Trier’s introduction to the unrated cut and an interview with the director conducted by University of Copenhagen Associate Professor Peter Schepelern.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“As the film progresses into its last stretches, it proves itself to be bizarrely satisfying, recontextualizing itself into something much grander in sadness and scope.”–Matt Cipolla, Film Monthly (Blu-ray)