What an Empty Promise Feels Like

By Archana Nathan

Film still from THE FOOLISH BIRD

“Why do you want to enter the Police Academy?” “Because it sounds safe” This exchange between the police chief of Mei Chang, a small city in The People’s Republic of China and Lynn, a 16-year-old girl, pretty much sums up Huang Ji and Ryuji Otsuka’s film THE FOOLISH BIRD (BEN NIAO, Berlinale Generation 14Plus). The entire film can be seen from this prism – of a young girl’s search for a sanctuary in a city that seems to have been abandoned just when it was on the brink of a transformation.

But who can blame Lynn, really, for seeking refuge? Take the landscape of Mei Chang, for example. It looks bleak: a lot of grey fills the screen, empty construction plots, half-finished buildings, demolitions and overall, a general sense of isolation prevails. Then there is the personal story of loneliness of Lynn whose mother is forced to work far away, leaving Lynn to encounter her teens, her sexuality and her youth all by herself.

Everything around Lynn is threatening her in a way. The film opens with the news of the rape and murder of a young girl. The smart phone revolution seems to have gripped Mei Chang and its youth but with the absence of a sense of purpose to the people’s lives in this empty city, the presence of these phones seems menacing. The phone itself, while initially giving Lynn a taste of freedom (even liberating her sexually), gradually, imprisons her to a murky world of rape, venereal diseases and corruption.The camera too follows Lynn obsessively trying to peek into her even as she tries to bury her face in her tresses in search of an escape. Through the story of one little girl, THE FOOLISH BIRD, actually, therefore, tries to tell you a story of a city left behind in the global race of smart and super smart cities. It tells the story of haste, of too much being done without adequate thought and ground work. It rather literally shows you the inherent violence that is at the foundation of mindless ‘development’. And, it is a cinematic portrayal of what an empty promise looks and feels like. Packed with powerful frames of the city, THE FOOLISH BIRD also features a phenomenal performance by the little girl playing the central character of Lynn. She straddles and epitomises the twin worlds of adventure and entrapment brilliantly. THE FOOLISH BIRD is a searing portrait of the times we live in.