Monday, October 4, 2010

Superstition and Cruelty: Xu Tong's Fortune Teller

Li Baicheng and his wife Pearl in Xu Tong's Fortune Teller.
Anyone living in major cities like Beijing or Shanghai is aware of the gaping chasm that exists between urban and rural life in China, but that doesn't make being confronted with the inequalities any less shocking. Xu Tong's new documentary Fortune Teller, screened recently at Beijing's Ullen's Center for Contemporary Art, delves into China's lower depths by spending a year with a crippled itinerant fortune teller and his deaf, mute, mentally impaired wife as they move around Hebei Province in China's north. The film is every bit as grueling as this description implies.

At the outset fortune teller Li Baicheng is living in a township close to Beijing, reminding viewers that you don't have to travel very far from China's city centres to see an impoverished world utterly divorced from the global power ambitions of the nation's leaders. These places are the pools in which the flotsam of the reform era collects – the very poor, the sick, the handicapped and those who simply never had a chance to receive a decent education. In short, these people are the expandable leftovers of China's headlong rush into authoritarian capitalism.

We follow Li Baicheng and his wife Pearl through a cycle of four seasons as they move from place to place, sometimes renting a room in town slums, sometimes staying with relatives in rural villages. One of the most telling scenes sees Li stop by the government-run Disabled Association to apply for financial assistance. The sight of the plump, leather-jacketed official lecturing the withered, crippled Li Baicheng about how he should consider himself lucky for the pittance the local authorities have already given him eloquently captures the relationship between the "people's government" and China's poor.

To the extent that the state is present at all on these people's lives it appears to be an entirely negative force. Li's business is threatened by a crackdown on fortune tellers after one of them allegedly rips off the son of a high official, while many of Li's clients are prostitutes who face constant police harassment. There is no sense of the authorities attempting to provide a secure environment for the underprivileged, let alone any kind of substantial financial support or shelter.

At the same time, Xu Tong does not shy away from depicting the intense cruelty that rural China's impoverished conditions brings out in many of the poor. At one point Li Baicheng describes the harsh treatment his mentally impaired wife received when she lived with her family. When they visit Pearl's brother we see the open-fronted wooden lean-to she used to sleep in, now used to shelter a goat. Given that winter daytime temperatures often fail to get above freezing in this part of China, it's a wonder Pearl even survived her upbringing.

The harsh relations between people reflects the fact that despite the superficial trappings of modern life, the film's subjects remain deeply mired in superstition and feudal social structures. One of Li Baicheng's clients, for example, is madam who runs a "hairdressing salon" (late-night salons in China are usually brothels), staffed by a stable of young girls. At Chinese New Year the girls prostrate themselves before their boss, pledging filial loyalty and promising to look after her when she is too old to run the salon or sell her own body. In return the older woman tearfully doles out red envelopes of cash, the traditional gift given to younger family members by their elders at new year. Behind all this lies the women's knowledge that in the world they inhabit, the elderly, the sick and the destitute are simply left to fend for themselves.

Li Baicheng and his wife in Fortune Teller.
There's little in Fortune Teller to alleviate the unrelentingly grim picture, and while I admire Xu Tong's determination to capture lives systematically excluded from mainstream Chinese media, by the third hour the prolonged peek into Li Baicheng's life began to feel uncomfortably like a perverse voyeurism. The film's final third added little to what we had already seen in the previous two hours, and my discomfort was only reinforced by the fact that Li's wife Pearl clearly did not have the mental capacity to understand what Xu Tong's presence meant, making her an unwitting subject of the camera's gaze.

My issue with Xu Tong's approach in Fortune Teller is related to some of the points I raised about Huang Mei's documentary The Village Elementary back in July. Both films take a fairly straightforward observational approach, watching people trapped in socio-economic positions far worse than those of the filmmakers. The problematic relationship this creates between director and subject is never reflected upon, just as neither film really attempts to explain or even understand how such a radically stratified society has come about. Fortune Teller hints at broader issues when Li Baicheng confronts the official from the Disabled Association, but for the most part the characters remain victims of shadowy social, political and historical forces that are never really explicated.

Of course there are no straightforward answers to any of these questions, but a filmmaker like Zhao Liang (Crime and Punishment, Petition) is differentiated from Xu Tong and Huang Mei by his ability to subtly evoke a broader social and political context for the problems we see on screen. More challengingly, Zhao also encourages the viewer to question the filmmaker's – and by extension the viewer's – complicity in the situations he depicts. In contrast, Fortune Teller and Village Elementary simply left me shaking my head at the hopelessness of it all – which in the end boils down to a form of condescending pity.


  1. If Fortune Teller hasn't given you a picture of the larger social & political problems, I don't know what will. Isn't it clear that Li Baicheng's life has taken a turn for the worse because the government has cracked down on fortune telling, traditionally one of the professions open to the disabled? The government has shut down a traditional way for the disabled to make a living but has not provided any real alternatives. What kind of government is that?

  2. It's true the film shows local governmental decisions having a negative impact on the characters in the film, but as I argued in the review above, I don't think the film ever reflects upon "how such a radically stratified society has come about."

    It's very easy to show particular government policies having a negative impact, but it's the underlying social problems that I think Fortune Teller fails to really examine. Some of these are to do with Communist Party rule, but some have much deeper social and historical roots.

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