Even if it were possible for me to take in all forty-two films that are part of the 2013 New York Asian Film Festival, I doubt that any could surpass Wang Jing’s “Feng Shui” for its skillful combination of social commentary with human drama. It plays tomorrow at the Walter Reade Theater at 8pm and I strongly urge my readers to see it. The work it is closest to in spirit and in artistic realization is Iranian director Asghar Farhadi’s 2011 “A Separation”, which also examines the breakdown of a marriage and its effect on children against the backdrop of a society undergoing severe socioeconomic strains.
Feng shui is the Chinese word for wind-water and describes a system of occult beliefs similar to astrology. By examining the patterns of sand or stones thrown randomly on the ground, one could divine the future, mainly by avoiding bad luck. One of its main uses was to decide where to build a house. Unfortunately for the family that has moved into a high-rise as the film begins, the building has bad feng shui according to a woman who is the best friend of the lead female character Li Baoli (Yan Bingyan). Baoli scoffs at this suggestion even as things have taken a turn for the worse on the very day that she, her husband Ma Xuewu (Jiao Gang), and young son Xiaobao (Li Xian) have moved in. The two-bedroom apartment is twice the size of their old one and stocked with modern fixtures, so what could go wrong? The bad feng shui, however, is more a function of Baoli’s sadistic behavior toward her husband than the building’s alignment.
When the movers tell Baoli that they have to charge a higher fee than originally quoted, she explodes at them. In a constant state of ill humor, she has almost a Tourette’s like tendency to swear at people (men in particular) for the slightest offence. Her favorite epithet is dogfucker.
Ma Xuewu makes the mistake of offering the movers a cigarette, a glass of soda, and a small tip. He is not aware that Baoli has spotted them on the balcony of the new apartment. Even worse, she overhears the movers telling her husband that they pity him for being married to a woman who has so little respect for him. She then bursts out onto the balcony and curses out her husband and the movers like a drill instructor in a very bad mood.
That night, as they are about to tuck themselves into bed, Xuewu tells Baoli that he wants a divorce. He then grabs some blankets and goes into the living room to sleep on the sofa.
The breakdown of the marriage takes place against the high-tension background of economic insecurity and the son competing against other students to get top grades. With both husband and wife employed, their hopes for Xiaobao getting into a good university and moving up the ranks of some profession seem well-placed. But as the conflict between husband and wife escalates, the son threatens to become collateral damage.
While watching the film, I was reminded of Balzac. Like his typical novel focused on the irreconcilable differences between family members in a rapidly growing and class-differentiated Paris, director Jing Wang and screenwriter Nan Wu hearken back to the golden age of naturalism, fully understanding that its affinity for story-telling and compelling characters has never gone out of style.
It would be hard to imagine “Feng Shui” achieving the level of a masterpiece as it has without the performance of Bingyan Yan as the wife and mother Baoli. She manages to convey both the repulsiveness of the woman as well as her inner strengths. In the final two-thirds of the movie, she becomes a yoke-bearer, a primitive form of transporting luggage around the city that belongs to China’s “coolie” past. It is undoubtedly the filmmakers’ way of saying that as long as social conditions in China remain so constrained by the forces of production, it will be impossible for people to live free and happy lives.
“Beijing Blues” will be screened at 4:30pm on Tuesday, July 9th. It is a dryly comic cop movie whose main character Zhang Huiling (a real life cop played by Lixian Zhang) is the polar opposite of all the kung-fu fighting, sharp-shooting characters played by Jackie Chan or Jet Li.
Detective Zhang is a doughy-faced, out-of-shape man in early middle age whose main job is keeping swindlers and pickpockets off the street rather than taking on sadistic gangsters with armies of henchmen or North Korean spies.
The film is documentary-like with reenactments of the typical bust, reminiscent of what I have seen with my own eyes as New York cops sweep down Lexington Avenue to confiscate the bootleg versions of Gucci bags being sold by unlicensed Senegalese vendors.
Zhang is fatalistic about his job. He jails the perpetrators, fully expecting them to be back on the street in a couple of days. The best parts of the film pit Zhang against the men and women in custody who argue that they have no alternative, having lost their jobs or never being able to find one in the first place. You have no doubt that he understands their point of view even if he must put them away.