Wednesday, July 03, 2013

NYAFF ’13: Feng Shui

Feng Shui is a traditional Chinese spiritual and aesthetic practice meant to maximize the flow of positive chi in living spaces.  The principles of shrewishness are pretty universal.  Both phenomena contribute to a bossy wife and mother’s bad karma in Wang Jing’s Feng Shui (trailer here), which screens tonight during the 2013 New York Asian Film Festival.

As soon as they move into their new flat, Li Baoli starts tearing into her passive husband, Ma Xuewu.  Suddenly, neither he nor their studious young son Xiabao seem to do anything right.  After about a day of this, Ma declares he wants a divorce, but this only further antagonizes his wife. Launching an emotional cold war against her husband, Li succeeds in pushing him into the arms of his factory colleague Zhou Fen, with disastrous results for the family.

Flashforward ten years: Li is now the primary breadwinner for her resentful son and her grey-haired mother-in-law.  Slaving like a dog as a yoke-bearing street porter, Li lives for the day the high achieving Xiabao takes his university entrance exams.  However, the teen has a general idea what transpired between her and her father and he definitely holds it against her.

Basically, Feng Shui is divided into two distinct halves.  Initially, Li Baoli is so foul-mouthed, insensitive, and downright mean-spirited she will have viewers reeling.  Surely, no movie character has used the expression “dog-f___er” as much as her.  Yet, somehow Yan Bingyan makes us care about her rather deeply during the redemptive karmic payback portion of the film.

Yan Bingyan is frankly amazing as Li, smoothly segueing from hot mess on wheels to a weathered self-sacrificing maternal goddess in the Ruan Lingyu mold.  She makes some extreme extremes look perfectly believable and totally exhausting. 

As befitting a woman’s story, Feng Shui’s richest supporting turns mostly come from women.  He Minglan gives a wonderfully subtle and humane turn as the mother-in-law who can see both the bad and the good in Li.  Likewise, Wang Moxi has some brief but powerful moments as Ma’s almost mistress.  Zhao Qian also adds some seasoning to the film as Li’s best friend, an aging trophy wife (who blames her less fortunate friend’s troubles on bad feng shui). However, for an ostensibly smart kid, the teenaged Xiabao does not seem to have much going on in his head, besides an awkward surliness.

Feng Shui is based on a novel by Fang Fang, whose work is either reminiscent of Neil LaBute or Ozu, depending on which half of the film you judge by.  Clearly, Li Baoli’s trials and tribulations are intended to underscore the difficulty realizing social mobility in contemporary China.  It might be a stark reflection of reality, but it is a good film.  Recommended for those who enjoy a quality tearjerker with an edge, Feng Shui screens tonight (7/3) at the Walter Reade Theater as part of the 2013 NYAFF.