'Birds in Mire': Film Review | Shanghai 2018

Courtesy of the Shanghai Film Festival
An on-target, low-flying affair.

A gay boy yearning for love and a rocker searching for her freedom set their sights on the same guy in Chinese director Zhang Wanlin’s first feature.

Gay themes in films from mainland China are few and far between and many, from Chen Kaige’s Farewell My Concubine to Lou Ye’s Spring Fever, have collected their kudos primarily at foreign film festivals. Birds in Mire, the first feature written and directed by Zhang Wanlin, focuses on ordinary working-class folk (gay and not) who don’t easily fit into Chinese society. Most of them — the younger generation for sure — are just looking for the freedom to be who they are. But, as the title of this small, well-crafted drama suggests, they’re stuck in dead-end jobs and roles, with scant chance of winging their way to a more genuine life. The storytelling as well as the theme make it worth a look for festivals.

Social drama is wisely kept in the background of a glancing three-way character study that reveals the desperation of a confused, unpromising generation. Li Tao (Zhang Yufeng) lives with an angry mother who wants out of her marriage and an ineffectual, hen-pecked older Dad. The latter is called “the Chairman” at the factory where he works and has probably always worked. He’s an old-school Communist of the nicest sort and is on the verge of retirement, until the factory bosses bully him into stepping down prematurely. His shell-shocked expression is hard to take, and it speaks volumes about his inability to fit into China’s fast-changing modern society.

Li Tao’s best friend in high school is the tall, athletic and not particularly bright Xiaofeng (Ye Xiaowei, giving the role the charisma it demands). Li Tao watches him play basketball and the guilty adoration on his face leaves no doubt about his feelings. How much of his crush Xiaofeng perceives, and actively encourages, is left in doubt. While taking a shower under the boy’s appreciative gaze, Xiaofeng calls him a pussy for not being able to swim and jump off the high dive and taunts him to stand up to a bully at school. But high school is over now, and neither one of them has done well enough on the entrance exams to qualify for an important college. So their future looks nebulous.

Where Li Tao retreats, Xiaofeng steps up to the bat. His own family is split up and he he takes his anger out on his father’s new car. It’s harder for him to accept that Mom is getting on with her life and a new man. Xiaofeng gets them summer jobs in a busy bar and promptly falls for a tough young woman, Gu Jia (Zhang Ziqi), who is the lead singer of a freedom-loving rock band. A haughty rocker by night, by day she struggles at a grueling, low-paid factory job where she’s anything but free.

The trio begins hanging out together, attends a local "ghost festival," and climbs to the top of a hill overlooking the city. But for Li Tao, who has experienced the emotion of dancing with his body pressed against Xiaofeng's, the camraderie is all a pretense. Watching Xiaofeng and Gu Jia together, he’s unable to control his jealousy, but too repressed and indecisive to express his feelings. As his desperation peaks, he procures a knife — but who to use it on?

Without frills or staged drama, Zhang Wanlin captures a pregnant, transitional moment in Chinese society and lifestyles. Editing bits and pieces of scenes together like a collage, he gives this quiet story a modern feeling. The music of David Bowie and Patti Smith will take Westerners back in time, but perhaps that’s where Li Tao and his friends are now.

Production companies: Pioneer Bro. Film&Advertising, Shanghai Foresight Culture Communications, Greenland Culture Assets and Equity Exchange
Cast: Ye Xiaowei, Zhang Yufeng, Zhang Ziqi
Director-screenwriter: Zhang Wanlin
Producer: Xu Ye
Director of photography: Fan Qi
Venue: Shanghai Film Festival (Refreshing Chinese Cinema section)

99 minutes