Suburban Birds is a mesmerizing riff on China's "boundless futures"

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      Starring Mason Lee. In Mandarin, with English subtitles. Rating unavailable

      In this Suburban Birds, shot in the old-fashioned 4:3 ratio, buildings, people, and places are seen through cameras and binoculars, and in mirrored reflections. Jittery zooms and abrupt cuts heighten a sense of anxiety felt by people going through rapid social changes. 

      The quietly anxious centre here is held by blandly handsome 20-something Xiahao (U.S.-born Mason Lee, son of famed director Ang Lee), part of a surveying group sent to investigate sinking housing estates in a suburban area of southern China. Hao is mildly berated by his three colleagues for a tendency to articulate what's actually going on; he thinks a series of subway tunnels beneath the developments is causing the crisis.

      At the team's chillingly empty hotel, Hao meets a beautiful woman (Lu Huang), seemingly displaced by whatever's happening underground. He also discovers a notebook in an abandoned school, thus triggering a string of (possible) flashbacks, with a younger boy named Xiahao (Zihan Gong), exploring nature with his childhood pals; they wear their red neck-scarves proudly and sing of "boundless futures" they will probably come to miss.

      First-time feature director Qiu Sheng has a background in engineering, but the movie isn't just a critique of a society rushing headlong into technology that threatens all living things-including birds, like the fictional sielia suburbium these characters keep talking about.

      The movie conveys the heat of summer and the heaviness of memory, freely mixing tones and camera styles—colour-rich and steady for the childhood scenes, nervous and bleak for the "modern" parts, and abstractly neon-bright at odd moments. But even the time frames are uncertain, as elements cross paths with each other unexpectedly.

      The effect is something like Stand by Me as directed by David Lynch. But deliberately paced as it is, the two-hour tale has a tough streak of poetic humanism that weaves its own mesmerizing spell.

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