Feng Shui: Tokyo Film Festival Review

A commanding performance from Yang Bingyan anchors director Wang Jing’s grim assessment of modern city life in mainland China.

Wang Jing's film follows the working-class woman's struggle to improve her status during the sharp economic rise of the 1990s.

The yoke of poverty proves an enduring burden in Feng Shui, Chinese director Wang Jing’s compassionate study of a working-class woman’s struggle to improve her status during the sharp economic rise of the 1990s. Stepping outside his social-issues wheelhouse with this piercing family drama, the director reveals a keen eye for high-stakes interpersonal conflict and the inner torment roiling within ordinary people.

Older audiences will appreciate the measured, conventional storytelling, elevated by a stunning central performance from veteran Beijing-born actress Yang Bingyan, who is rarely off-screen and convincingly roams the emotional gamut. Her devastating portrayal of a woman undone by a preoccupation with success makes this Mandarin-language production a solid booking for further Asia-centric festivals following its premiere in competition at the Tokyo International Film Festival.

With 2009’s Invisible Killer, a murder mystery highlighting the destructive power of the internet, and 2010’s Vegetate, which took a critical look at China’s pharmaceutical industry, Wang Jing has built a reputation for taking on pressing social issues. Condemnation of the wrenching social transformations which accompanied the country’s rapid economic growth is common among Chinese auteurs, but here it is used to background a drama that is resolutely individual in its focus.

Li Baoli (Yang) works as a shopkeeper’s helper in the heavily populated central Chinese city of Wuhan. She’s a tortured soul, racked by anguish and indeterminate rage, which manifests itself in torrents of abuse and scorn heaped upon her husband and her studious young son. In short, she’s a shrew.

She continues to berate her milquetoast husband Ma Xuewu (Jiao Gang) even as his steady job as a factory team leader provides them with the means to move into a well-appointed highrise apartment where, she is momentarily pleased to discover, they have the luxury of their own bathroom.

Wu Nan’s screenplay, based on a novel by Fang Fang, keeps Baoli’s inner dialogue from us so we are sometimes at as much of a loss to fathom her emotional thrashing about as her family and friends are. Making this protagonist sympathetic is a Herculean task, but Yang (Memory of Love, Close to Me) rises to the challenge, giving us glimpses of the panic behind her agitation and the steely determination she musters just to carry on.

Yang, de-glammed but still beautiful, carries her former dancer’s body clenched like a fist, her gait awkward with compressed fury. Jiao’s (Mao’s Last Dancer) considerable height seems diminished before her – his bespectacled lightweight is not so much hen-pecked as clobbered into submission. He’s not a bad husband or father, he’s just not enough of anything for Baoli.

When Baoli’s unremitting spite drives Ma Xuewu into the arms of another woman – and further, to a tragic end – she barely falters, shouldering the breadwinning load in a way-too-literal metaphor as a yoke-bearer in the marketplace. “The Yin flourishes when the Yang fails,” quips a friend and confidante, in one of many allusions to the current of gender politics coursing through the film.  

Working to support her son and elderly mother-in-law, the hardscrabble existence and sense of purpose seem to agree with her. But still she’s earned no peace and struggles to make sense of the shambles her life has become, particularly when an ugly tussle with Jian Jian (Chen Gang), a streetwise acquaintance turned casual lover, jeopardizes her son’s all-important final exams.

Dimly lit interiors and overcast skies contribute to the downbeat mood, bleak as Liu Younian’s slate-grey cinematography. The film’s title refers to a superstitious friend’s explanation for Baoli’s woes. The new family home is located smack-bang on an intersection where seven roads converge: bad Feng Shui.

As his camera moves low through congested city streets teeming with battling humanity, Wang suggests something more pragmatic: for some unlucky souls life’s just full of pain.

Cast: Yan Bingyan, Jiao Gang, Chen Gang
Director: Wang Jing
Writer: Wu Nan
Director of photography:
Liu Younian
Production designer: Bai Hao
Editor: Feng Wen
Composer: Yang Sili
Sales: Antaeus Film, Beijing
No rating, 120 minutes.