'Shaman' ('Xiao Gua Fu Cheng Xian Ji'): Film Review

Courtesy of First International Film Festival
A flawed but daring debut.

Cai Chengjie's supernatural satire won the best narrative feature and best director prizes at China's FIRST International Film Festival.

In Cai Chengjie's directorial debut, a much-abused widow discovers she has paranormal powers and reinvents herself as a traveling oracle. That this born-again mystic ends up even more persecuted than before speaks volumes about Shaman's grim, fatalistic worldview. Unfolding in a boxed-in 4:3 aspect ratio and mostly in black and white, Cai's film is thematically bold and visually intriguing, but protracted and uneven.

Having just won the best feature and best director awards at FIRST Film Festival — an event that has fast become the hub for independent-thinking, taboo-breaking Chinese cinema — Shaman should find traction on the festival circuit after some adjustments to its tone and length. The Last Laugh, which won FIRST's top prize last year, appeared in Cannes' ACID sidebar in a restructured and much shorter cut, and it's an example Cai should consider following.

A domestic release would probably be more problematic, given how the film features ghosts, soothsayers, corruption and unfettered moral decay — all of them crossing the stringent red lines laid out in China's laws regulating the country's cinematic output.

As Shaman begins, Erhao (Tian Tian) faces a very bleak future. Having just lost her husband and home when their illegal firecracker factory blew up, the young woman is raped by a relative who took her in, kicked out of the house soon afterward, and left to fend off the leering advances of her village chief. She does this by telling him how every man she has slept with — namely, her three ex-husbands — has since died.

Reclaiming her late husband's rickety minivan from one of his so-called best friends, Erhao sets off on a slow tour around the region with only her mute kid brother-in-law Shitao (Wen Xinyu) for company. Their first stop is to visit a paralyzed old relative who has spent his past years rotting away alone in his soiled bed. When the old man walks again after Erhao gives him a good cleaning-up, the villagers begin to talk her up as a saint. It's a title she readily accepts and turns into a paid vocation as she travels from town to town offering advice which, she says, will be more useful than hopes of redress from the government.

Erhao's irreverent remark is reminiscent of how Shaman represents her village — or Chinese society in general — as awash in cynicism. In the film, people are expected to cleanse their sins in a "confession box" at the entrance of the village, after which they can continue their petty, abusive and violent ways in good conscience. In the same vein, con men would describe their money-making scams in terms of "five-year plans" and achieving "xiaokang" — an official term used to describe the "moderately prosperous society" the Chinese government want to put in place by 2020.

There's no way Erhao could triumph over such banal evil, and she eventually discovers even her superpowers will not be enough to save the wretched people from themselves. Shaman brims with barbed humor, but interest dips when Cai injects his satire with moments of melodrama. Inconsistency also undermines the film's visual style, with certain scenes (and items within a shot) appearing inexplicably in color. While Shaman is not a spellbinding success, it offers glimpses of potential from a talented apprentice.

Production company: Coloured Glaze Sky Film & TV Planning
Cast: Tian Tian, Wen Xinyu, Yang Shuyou
Director-screenwriter: Cai Chengjie
Producers: Hu Xiaotao
Executive producers: Jiao Feng, Cai Chengjie
Director of photography: Jiao Feng
Art directors: Li Zhengzong, Hu Xiaotao, Zhang Wuxiu  
Costume designer: Wang Qi
Music: Li Qiang, Jin Weiye
Editor: Li Cheng
Casting: Li Lianzheng

In Mandarin

140 minutes