Xu Tong’s 157-minute docu concerns a badly crippled fortuneteller with a severely impaired wife, driven from pillar to post by police crackdowns. If the central figure, Li Baicheng, were any less oddly charismatic, the film might register only as an exhaustive case history on the marginalization of the poor and disabled under Chinese capitalism. Yet Li maintains a remarkable level of equanimity, as Xu’s camera becomes a kind of companion to whom he confides his thoughts. Pic’s length and lack of an immediate hook make theatrical play a longshot, but “Fortune Teller” could get luckier in ancillary.
Controversial Sixth Generation Chinese documentarian Xu Tong has divided his film with detailed chapter headings that list events to come, apparently a bow to Qing Dynasty fiction and a unique structural intrusion given the docu’s otherwise observational mode. In many ways, Li seems an equal partner in narrating events, often commenting aloud on what he is doing or intends to do.
One of Li’s most fascinating stories concerns how he came to marry his mentally challenged, deaf-mute wife, Pearl: He felt sorry for her. Her family treated her poorly, keeping her year-round in an open shed that now houses a goat. Plus, he needed companionship (which he later clarifies as sex) and felt that no one else would wed a cripple. But he cares for her with tender impatience.
At pic’s opening, Li lives in a small town on Beijing’s outskirts, barely scratching out a living as a fortuneteller. He takes his job seriously, approaching it as a craft that has been passed down from practitioner to practitioner. Involving no extraordinary paranormal gifts, Chinese divination relies on wisdom, experience and an accurate use of traditional tools, such as cards or spinning wheels. Xu films several of Li’s sessions with different clients, most of them prostitutes, who pour out hard-luck stories in hopes of changing their fate.
When government authorities begin to enforce hitherto-ignored statutes against fortunetelling and prostitution, the double whammy forces Li and his wife to uproot, their relatively sedentary life turning into a more peripatetic existence as Li scuttles around on crutches, setting up his table at fairs, sleeping in alleyways and reuniting with old acquaintances that indicate he is no stranger to the streets. A visit to an official agency for the disabled quickly scotches any idea of government assistance: After painfully scaling innumerable stairs on his crutches, he is scolded by a fat bureaucrat who claims he should be grateful for the pittance he received.
Throughout, Li remains remarkably philosophical, angry at the authorities but coping with bright-eyed dignity, alive to those around him. The relationship between Li and the camera never feels voyeuristic, the two seeming to consciously enable each other in mutually beneficial ways.