Review: ‘Cavebirds’

Hot Docs 2019

2 mins read

(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

Visit the POV Hot Docs Hub for more coverage from this year’s festival!

Liam Lacey is a freelance writer for and POV, Canada’s premiere magazine about documentaries and independent films.

Previously, he was a film critic for The Globe and Mail newspaper from 1995 to 2015. He has also contributed to such publications as Variety, Cinema Scope, Screen, and Entertainment Weekly, as well as broadcast outlets CBC and National Public Radio.

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