The Hit Indie Flick China’s Film Snobs Love to Hate
If there’s one thing Qiu Sheng can’t stand, it’s “elitists.”
The word has a special meaning for the young director. It refers to a certain kind of Chinese movie fan: educated, snobbish, but intolerant of challenging, experimental cinema. In other words, the kind of viewer who hates “Suburban Birds” — Qiu’s debut feature.
“Elitists may feel insulted by this film, as it doesn’t offer them a rational explanation,” Qiu tells Sixth Tone. “But I believe people with adventurous and tender hearts will enjoy it.”
The 31-year-old has become all too aware of what people think of his work over recent weeks. In late February, “Suburban Birds” was finally released in China, over two years after it made a splash on the international festival circuit. But to say it has divided opinion would be an understatement.
Multi-layered and rich in visual symbolism, the film follows two sets of characters as they move through the rapidly developing city of Hangzhou — Qiu’s hometown in eastern China. A team of surveyors tries to deal with land subsidence caused by a local infrastructure project, while a gang of children hunts for a missing friend among the ruins of a demolished neighborhood. As the journeys progress, the two plotlines converge, yet their true relationship remains unclear.
The time-bending movie enjoyed instant critical success when it started appearing at film festivals in 2018. The New York Times praised Qiu’s “spectacular directing debut,” while Variety called the film “a seductively inscrutable puzzler.” It scored 83% on the review site Rotten Tomatoes and won multiple prizes, including a special jury mention at the 2019 San Francisco International Film Festival.
Yet in its home market, the feature has had a much colder reception. China’s risk-averse film industry was reluctant to invest in a nationwide release, perceiving indie movies as a tough sell. Chinese regulators, meanwhile, demanded changes to scenes showing children smoking cigarettes and singing a Communist song inappropriately, among others.
When “Suburban Birds” finally hit mainland theaters last month, it received few screenings and to date has generated a measly 490,000 yuan ($75,000) at the box office, according to film market data platform Dengta. Domestic reviewers have relished cutting the award-winning director down to size, with many accusing him of putting style over substance.
“I have no idea what Qiu Sheng is trying to express in his film, and I have no intention of finding out,” read one highly-upvoted comment on China’s Twitter-like Weibo. “Any film that fails to depict a clear storyline is a bad film.”
For Qiu, the backlash was initially tough to take. A graduate of the elite Tsinghua University in Beijing, where he was president of the film society, and Hong Kong Baptist University’s Academy of Film, his rise to stardom had previously been nearly seamless.
“I got a lot of party invitations after I won several international film awards … so I was a bit flashy for awhile,” he says. “Then, I heard critics saying my film is too self-conscious and experimental.”
But the director realizes the social media storm swirling around “Suburban Birds” is about much more than the film itself. Its roots stem from a long-running battle between competing visions of the role Chinese cinema should play in society.
According to China’s socialist tradition, film is a tool for entertaining and guiding the masses — a view that still exerts a powerful influence today. For this reason, many dismiss complex works like “Suburban Birds” as self-indulgent and unworthy.
Others, however, have urged more understanding for arthouse directors, arguing China should embrace a more liberal attitude toward culture. “The idea of using ‘I can’t understand’ to criticize abstract modern art has been around for a long time,” said Dai Jinhua, a film expert at Peking University, in a 2016 interview. “In the ’90s, the country encouraged filmmakers to produce films that were accessible to undereducated people, but it’s time to change this view.”
Qiu himself has been forced to address the issue, suggesting at a recent event that the criticism of “Suburban Birds” highlights the problems facing China’s independent movie scene. “We need more screening events to bring audiences closer to indie films and eliminate the barriers between them,” he said.
But space for indie movies appears to be shrinking in China, squeezed by an increasingly profit-focused movie industry on one side and tighter regulatory oversight on the other. Art films that might have made a few million yuan in 2016 are now lucky to make 1 million, Qiu suggests.
“The industry places more value on studio films,” he says. “They’re easier to sell.”
As a result, Chinese filmmakers find themselves caught in a Catch-22, according to Qiu. Because they struggle to make an impact at home, many focus on gaining recognition abroad. (Qiu is one of several up-and-coming Chinese directors to triumph at international festivals recently, with Han Shuai’s “Summer Blur” winning a Berlin Generation Prize just this month). But this in turn has led many to accuse creators like Qiu of being “xenocentric” and slavishly seeking foreigners’ approval.
For Qiu, the debates over his intentions and filmmaking style are frustrating, as they tend to drown out any discussions of the movie’s content. His overriding goal as a filmmaker, he insists, has simply been to explore the reality of life in China, in all its complexity and contradiction.
Behind the fancy camerawork, “Suburban Birds” is a deeply personal reflection on China’s breakneck modernization, and how dramatic changes to the urban environment have often destabilized local communities. Growing up near the old Hangzhou East Railway Station in the ’90s, Qiu experienced this transformation firsthand.
As a child, Qiu saw his entire local area demolished and rebuilt, with the clanging of construction work a constant soundtrack. On one occasion, he recalls joining a group of friends to search for a classmate who hadn’t shown up for school, but eventually giving up as he no longer knew how to navigate his own neighborhood — an episode that later inspired the plot of “Suburban Birds.”
Life in Hangzhou’s old, ramshackle communities was tough, but more innocent, according to Qiu. Redevelopment brought modern comforts, but also new social divisions, as local authorities were unwilling to grant equal rights to the large number of waidiren, or internal migrants, who flooded into the city. It also created greater economic disparities, as people struggled to adapt to a more market-driven economy.
Speaking with Sixth Tone at a café in central Hangzhou, Qiu discusses how “Suburban Birds” explores these issues and the future of China’s film market. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Sixth Tone: How did the city of Hangzhou inspire your film?
Qiu Sheng: When I moved back to Hangzhou after completing my graduate studies, the modern city felt like a sterile utopia. There weren’t any conflicts in my life like there were in my childhood.
I particularly remember visiting a scenic spot called Jiuxi. It seemed fine at first, because the woods were preserved pretty well. But I was shocked when I realized there weren’t any birds singing. The noiseless forest was like a scene from the movie “Silent Hill.” I believe whether a place has birds is an essential indicator of whether it’s alive, so that’s why I made the film “Suburban Birds.”
Sixth Tone: Several sequences in the film highlight China’s social hierarchies in the ’90s. Why did you choose to focus on this?
Qiu: The urbanization taking place at the time was also a process of social stratification. It led to people residing in blocks filled with people from similar socioeconomic backgrounds. In the movie, the character Fang Ting has a wealthy family, so they could afford a new home away from the suburbs when the redevelopment projects were taking place.
During my childhood, all the kids in my neighborhood outwardly looked pretty much the same. The only differences were in how expensive their stationary or backpacks were. But you’d often be drawn unconsciously to people of a similar social class, only realizing later this relationship was the product of social inequality.
Sixth Tone: How do the romantic relationships in the film reflect the theme of urban renewal?
Qiu: This is a very interesting question. Urbanization was also a process of categorization — society enforcing norms and regulations on people. It’s a bit like how societies police gender and sexual boundaries, but in nature we’d all be bisexual.
In the film, these six kids can desire people of the same sex or the opposite sex while they’re in the Garden of Eden. But when the urban renewal takes place, some people are abandoned, as they don’t conform with the new social norms.
Sixth Tone: You are one of several young Chinese directors who have been recognized at overseas film festivals recently. What does this say about the development of China’s film industry?
Qiu: For young Chinese independent filmmakers, participating in global film festivals is a last resort. The Chinese market doesn’t value indie films as much as studio productions.
These days, it’s very difficult for an indie film to reach 5 million yuan in box office revenue. Back in 2016, the indie movie “Kaili Blues” made over 6 million yuan. But now the industry places more value on studio films, since they’re easier to sell.
Winning an international film award can at least provide us with recognition for our prowess. It might also push the domestic film industry to cherish talented filmmakers more.
But we often hear critics judging directors who win international awards, saying we’re “xenocentric” and shooting movies to flatter Western audiences. From my perspective, I want to produce films that represent the Chinese mainland to the world. When I took “Suburban Birds” for post-production in Taiwan, the editor said he hadn’t been aware of how developed the mainland had become, even though he lives so close.
I think the main problem lies in a lack of film education. In China, film served purely as a promotional tool in the past. Since 2018, regulations on the movie industry have further strengthened, and film is promoted not as a medium for art, but advocacy. Studio films can easily get funding from the administration. So, the future of independent film in China remains murky.
However, who knows what the power of young indie filmmakers like us can achieve?
Editor: Dominic Morgan.
(Header image: A still from the film “Suburban Birds.” Courtesy of the film crew)