The Foolish Bird
China, 2017, colour, 2.35:1, 117 mins.
Directors: Huang Ji 黄骥, Otsuka Ryuji 大塚龙治.
Sullen slice of miserabilist Mainland life, centred on a teenage girl, has nothing new to say.
Meicheng town, Hunan province, China, the present day, November. Lin Sen (Yao Honggui), 16, lives with her maternal grandparents (Huang Zifan, Yan Shixiang) and three young cousins; her mother (Liu Xiaoling) and father are away, working in Zhuhai, Guangdong province. Though she’s studying to get into Senior High School, Lin Sen actually wants to join the Police Academy instead. Her only friend is Meizi (Yao Fang), who was adopted by a family with a son who has cerebral palsy; the two hang out in internet cafes and Meizi makes some money by selling stolen mobile phones. The town is currently unsettled by the so-far-unsolved crime of the rape and murder of a high-school student. As a result, Meizi has her phone confiscated by her adoptive mother; when Lin Sen’s class is also ordered by their teacher to temporarily hand in their phones, Lin Sen is assigned to collect them and gives Meizi the phone of a student who always bullies her. Lin Sen gets drawn into Meizi’s petty stealing and, while celebrating with some of her friends one night, gets drunk. When she wakes up, Meizi has vanished and doesn’t reply to phone messages. Lin Sen starts selling some of her classmates’ phones on her own. She also becomes sexually involved with Dawei (Xiao Liqiao), son of the town’s police chief, who could help her get into the Police Academy. One day her mother turns up briefly, in order to borrow money for a building project in Zhuhai; when Lin Sen starts getting stomach pains, her mother discovers she is no longer a virgin. When Meizi suddenly calls out of the blue, wanting to borrow RMB500, Lin Sen pretends she is out of town. She’s more worried she was raped the night she got drunk and could now be pregnant – neither of which fears she lets Dawei know.
After her first feature Egg and Stone 鸡蛋和石头 (2012) and the documentary Trace 痕迹 (2013), writer-director Huang Ji 黄骥, 32, returns with the equally perplexing The Foolish Bird 笨鸟, another slice of miserabilist Mainland life set in her home province of Hunan and once more centred on a teenage “left behind” 留守 girl who lives with relatives and copes with adolescence while her parents are away from home working. Again shot by Otsuka Ryuji 大塚龙治 (Huang’s Japanese-born documentarian husband, 44, who here gets a co-writing and co-directing credit) and starring non-professional actress Yao Honggui 姚红贵, it’s full of the same arty affectations as Egg – taciturn dialogue, confusing narrative jumps, depriving the audience of necessary information – and hardly justifies its two-hour length.
The best that can be said about Bird is that it accurately reflects some aspects of day-to-day life in an average, scrubby town in China’s rural interior and the aimlessness of some of its youth. But non-commercial Mainland cinema is full of such films, and Bird adds nothing new. As in Egg, there’s an undercurrent of sexual abuse running through the film – even the heroine’s experiences with her bozo boyfriend are portrayed as joyless and painful – and the future seems to offer no hope, with her literally disappearing into the misty night. Yao, now 17, has a certain presence in some scenes but is given little chance to be anything more than sullen. Among the non-professional cast, Liu Xiaoling 刘小玲 (who was also in Egg) cuts a stronger profile as her bottom-line mother.
Otsuka’s widescreen photography has a verismo feel with a touch of dingy urban poetry. Almost all the dialogue is in Hunan dialect. The film’s title presumably refers to the Chinese proverb “the clumsy bird flies first” 笨鸟先飞, meaning how a person of limited ability has to work extra hard to compensate.
Produced by Yellow-Green Pi (CN), Coolie Films (CN).
Script: Huang Ji, Otsuka Ryuji. Photography: Otsuka Ryuji. Editing: Liao Qingsong. Music: Lin Qiang [Lim Giong]. Art direction: uncredited. Costumes: uncredited. Sound: Wang Changrui, Wang Xuliang.
Cast: Yao Honggui (Lin Sen/Lynn), Xiao Liqiao (Dawei), Yao Fang (Meizi/May), Huang Zifan (Lin Zifan, Lin Sen’s grandfather), Yan Shixiang (Lin Sen’s grandmother), Liu Xiaoling (Lin Sen’s mother).
Premiere: Berlin Film Festival (Generation 14plus), 12 Feb 2017.
Release: China, tba.