Wang Jing’s “Feng Shui” – 2013 New York Asian Film Festival Review

Director Wang Jing’s powerful film “Feng Shui” examines the themes of family, class and gender in rising China in the 1990s, but it is ultimately a story about one hard-headed woman’s survival instinct.

For Li Baoli (Yan Bingyan), having her own bathroom was a sign that she and her family had finally made it.  As an assistant to a shopkeeper in a dingy mall, she, along with her husband Ma Xuewu (Jiao Gang) and young son, personify the Chinese dream of upward social mobility.  However, while moving into a new apartment in a middle-class neighborhood should have been a source of happiness, Baoli finds that she is still dissatisfied with her life and demands ever more from the already-browbeaten Xuewu.  After a tragic turn of events, she finds herself alone with her son and mother-in-law, literally carrying the weight of her increased responsibilities on her shoulders as she labors as a marketplace porter to earn enough money to keep the family afloat.

It is difficult to decide whether one should despise Baoli for her brutal ambition and lack of empathy, or whether she deserves sympathy as she struggles as a menial laborer and heavy-handedly tries to build a relationship with her son after 10 years of neglect.  “I know I’m an uncultured brute, but my intentions are true,” she bluntly says after her son rejects her belated attempts at mothering.

Actress Yan Bingyan does an excellent job portraying the simmering volcano of emotion and denial within Baoli, from the unflinching set of her eyes to the grit of her teeth when she finds herself in yet another unlucky situation.  Director Wang spares no sympathy when portraying the struggles of the working class.  The sun never seems to shine through the constant haze in the air and colors throughout the movie are depressingly muted.  The only spots of brightness occur when Baoli is with her childhood friend, Xiaofeng, who leads a significantly more extravagant lifestyle as a result of her husband’s financial success.  However, money does not necessarily equate to happiness, as Xiaofeng chooses to turn a blind eye as her husband cheats with his mistress.

The lives of Baoli and Xiaofeng represent a major moral question in China today, as the country surges forward with economic prosperity.  To paraphrase the infamous Chinese dating show contestant, is it really better to cry in a BMW than to laugh on the back of a bicycle?  “Feng Shui”’s study of both this and the meaning of family in a rapidly-changing country results in a compelling drama that repels and pulls you closer at the same time.

“Feng Shui” screens at the New York Asian Film Festival on Wed., July 3, at 8 p.m.  For ticket information, go to the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s website at