Film Reviews

Review: ‘Cavebirds’

Hot Docs 2019

(Canada, 81 minute.)
Dir Emily Gan
Programme: Canadian Spectrum (World Premiere)

Montreal-based Emily Gan’s debut feature is a first-person essay film around an unusual subject: bird spit. To be more specific, the saliva of small swallow-like birds, which in hardened form is the prized ingredient in the Chinese traditional delicacy of bird’s nest soup. Gan’s film focuses on her father, Hok-Wah (Howard) a soft-spoken gentle man who has suffered from a lifelong weak heart. In his retirement, he has a quixotic plan to reconnect to his family’s past and provide for his children and their children: He moves back to his home town in Malaysia, and builds a concrete nesting house, roughly the size of a small parking garage. Here, he explains, the bird’s nest house will provide for his descendants from the hard white scoop-shaped nests which sell for thousands of dollars a kilo. The trouble is the swallows don’t seem attracted to the new building and the father’s plan may be a folly.

With the extensive use of first-person ruminations and elegiac music (composed by Gan), the film mixes personal reflections with conventional talking-head interviews. Gan’s doc is a pained love letter to her artistic, impractical father, with his love of bonsai trees, birds and old poetry. If Cavebirds sometimes seems subtle to a fault, Gan has an painter’s eye for suggestive poetic images, especially the recurrent motif of birds darting like dark fireworks in the half-light.

Cavebirds screens:
-Sun, Apr. 28 at 2:45 PM TIFF Lightbox
-Tues, Apr. 30 at 1:45 PM at TIFF Lightbox
-Fri, May 3 at 10:30 AM at TIFF Lightbox

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