Fortune Teller is a documentary that evolves over numerous chapters. Unfortunately, it t ultimately feels like a tale of two films each film fighting with the other to have its unique voice heard. The aspect that ties the film together is Li Baicheng, a physically disabled fortune teller who is trying to maintain his lively hood in a Chinese culture where being a fortune teller is considered illegal by law.
Director Xu Tong spends half of the film providing a frank look at Li Baicheng’s life and his daily struggle. The film really hits its emotional peak when Li Baicheng talks about his wife Pearl, who is both mentally and physically disabled. He rescued her from a life of abuse at age 40. Wanting nothing more than to have a companion around the house Li Baicheng offered Pearl a better life despite his own poverty. However, there is a bittersweet tone to the relationship as Li Baicheng knows he will be responsible for taking care of Pearl for the rest of his life. This task is growing increasingly more difficult since his customers are dwindling and the money coming in from the government run disability agency cannot even sustain one person.
The other aspect of Li Biacheng’s life that Tong explores is his work as a fortune teller. Li Biacheng’s customers cover a diverse section of the population, everyone from prostitutes to people striving to keep their family unit together seek Li Biacheng’s advice. While it is interesting to see Li Baicheng providing frank advice, such as when he tells a woman she is destined to live a lonely life, Xu Tong spends far too much time focusing on the customer’s life away from their encounters with the fortune teller. These uneven diversions make Fortune Teller feel longer than it needs to be. Many of the scenes involving the beggars, prostitutes, etc, could have been cut down to a mere few minutes especially since Tong already had such riveting footage of Pearl’s visit back to her brother’s place, the place of her past abuse. Xu Tong should have kept a tighter focus on Li Biacheng, as his story is more than enough to sustain the entire documentary. It is just too bad Xu Tong did not show more faith in the strength of his main subject.