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Fortune Teller

算命 (Suan Ming)

2009157 mins|Director Xu Tong 徐童


intro

Disability is almost synonymous with marginality, and disabled vagabonds are definitely marginal to society. The documentary film Fortune Teller features Li Baicheng, a physically-impaired man, and his wife Pearl Shi, a person with a hearing impairment who is also intellectually disabled, who live by fortune telling in an urban village about 35 kilometres from Beijing and 283 kilometres from Li's ...

Disability is almost synonymous with marginality, and disabled vagabonds are definitely marginal to society. The documentary film Fortune Teller features Li Baicheng, a physically-impaired man, and his wife Pearl Shi, a person with a hearing impairment who is also intellectually disabled, who live by fortune telling in an urban village about 35 kilometres from Beijing and 283 kilometres from Li's hometown in Qinglong County, Hebei Province.

Filled with socially marginalised characters such as prostitutes, homeless elderly, and the disabled, this documentary, one of Xu Tong's Vagabonds Trilogy (游民三部曲), nevertheless refuses to adopt the usual connotation of misery with the lives of the marginal and the disabled. Instead, with Xu Tong's rather symmetrical camera treatment, Li the Daoist fortune teller in his sixties often reveals a calm attitude and makes wise commentaries on life in general. Li and his friends' lives are often invisible to most people, yet through the documentary the audience get to see that they share much of the everyday life and ordinary concerns, family relationships and responsibilities of non-disabled people. Meanwhile, the visible lack of public facilities for disabled people in the county office for social welfare ironically highlights the difficulties faced by the disabled in China. With little doubt Li and Shi and their friends are stumbling along, but with dignity.

Dr. LAI Lili (Institute of Medical Humanities, Peking University)

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screening notes

context

Xu Tong (b. Beijing, 1965), one of the best-known Chinese documentary film-makers outside China, describes himself as a 'nomad' or 'vagabond' film-maker, and Fortune Teller, together with Wheat Harvest (2009) and Shattered (2011), make up his so-called 'Vagabonds Trilogy' of documentaries about unconventional people who live on the margins of society and often outside the law in northern China tod...

Xu Tong (b. Beijing, 1965), one of the best-known Chinese documentary film-makers outside China, describes himself as a 'nomad' or 'vagabond' film-maker, and Fortune Teller, together with Wheat Harvest (2009) and Shattered (2011), make up his so-called 'Vagabonds Trilogy' of documentaries about unconventional people who live on the margins of society and often outside the law in northern China today. Wheat Harvest is an intimate portrait of a group of part-time and seasonal sex workers living and working in a rustic brothel on the rural fringe of Beijing, while Shattered examines the difficult relationship between a reclusive elderly former railroad worker and his adult daughter, a former prostitute with business interests in prostitution and illegal mining, in rural Hebei province. Fortune Teller is set in a rather similar small town/urban fringe milieu and in common with much modern Chinese independent documentary film-making focusses on the lives of poor, marginalised or dispossessed people who have been rejected or ignored by contemporary society, in this instance for their physical and intellectual disabilities.

Xu Tong's work belongs very much to the Chinese version of the hand-held camera, direct observational school of documentary film-making, and several of his films, notably Wheat Harvest, have been severely criticised for grossly intruding on their subjects' privacy and for neglecting to observe the conventions usually employed to disguise their true identities. In much of his work, Xu Tong appears to sympathise or even empathise with the marginality and defiant nonconformity of many of his subjects, and his most recent work, Cut Out the Eye, an epic ethnographic documentary about a highly unconventional, semi-delinquent blind nomadic musician in Inner Mongolia, follows very much in the same line.

Dr. Michael CLARK (King's College London)

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synopsis & relevance

Li Baicheng is a physically impaired fortune teller who lives with his wife Pearl Shi, who is hard of hearing and has an intellectual disability. Staying in a shed with very simple facilities on the rural fringe of Beijing, Li's customers are mainly composed of the local prostitutes who are also at the bottom level of social class. In 2008, due to the Beijing Olympics, a local clean-up campaign dr...

Li Baicheng is a physically impaired fortune teller who lives with his wife Pearl Shi, who is hard of hearing and has an intellectual disability. Staying in a shed with very simple facilities on the rural fringe of Beijing, Li's customers are mainly composed of the local prostitutes who are also at the bottom level of social class. In 2008, due to the Beijing Olympics, a local clean-up campaign drove away the girls and with them, much of Li's business. He then decided to go back to his hometown to see if he could make a living there, with a hope to get his state subsidy as a disabled person from the local social service office. To his disappointment, Li failed to obtain the money from the local office, nor could he find a way to support himself and his wife in his hometown. After visiting a couple of his old friends who had remained homeless in the county town, Li and his wife went to attend a local post-spring festival temple fair, hoping to earn some money by telling others' fortunes, in order to pay their way as they start to explore yet another unpredictable phase of life.

Dr. LAI Lili (Institute of Medical Humanities, Peking University)

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cinematography

The camera is deliberately positioned lower than most of the characters, and their awareness of the camera is openly demonstrated to the audience. The documentarist's perspective on everyday life is rather anthropological in the way that it pays attention to fine details, such as the water puddles after rain in the opening scene. The language used by the fortune teller and his friends, their body ...

The camera is deliberately positioned lower than most of the characters, and their awareness of the camera is openly demonstrated to the audience. The documentarist's perspective on everyday life is rather anthropological in the way that it pays attention to fine details, such as the water puddles after rain in the opening scene. The language used by the fortune teller and his friends, their body images and movements, and scenes in which medicine, health and life or well being in general are closely intertwined, are all worthy of close attention. The film narrative adopts the genre of traditional Chinese novels with captions for each chapter, which reminds us of the self-organised alternative society of marginal groups in China, the Jianghu, that is often showcased in these novels, featuring a seemingly more equal society than the visible mainstream one. Once one begins to treat the disabled and the marginal in an equal way, one might learn how to appreciate an alternative life, with due respect.

Dr. LAI Lili (Institute of Medical Humanities, Peking University)

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points for discussion

What is seen and unseen in everyday life, in relation to what is deemed normal or abnormal?
What can we learn about family relationships and responsibilities in China from the lives of the disabled as portrayed in the film?
What factors have made the disabled ‘the lowest class of Chinese society’?
What is the condition of public facilities for the disabled?
How does the angle of the camera work to...

  • What is seen and unseen in everyday life, in relation to what is deemed normal or abnormal?

  • What can we learn about family relationships and responsibilities in China from the lives of the disabled as portrayed in the film?

  • What factors have made the disabled ‘the lowest class of Chinese society’?

  • What is the condition of public facilities for the disabled?

  • How does the angle of the camera work to render the invisible visible?

  • What does the main characters' awareness of the camera tell us about their friendship with the director, and the portrayal of people on the margins of society?

  • Back to the main theme of the seen and the unseen, the visible and the invisible, what have we learned about the alternative society in China, the Jianghu?

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