Liu Pingguo is the best foot massager in the best foot massage place in Beijing; the Golden Basin. Being the best, or being female, or being a human with a pulse means fending off salacious male customers is half the job description, but remember do it with a smile!, her boss says as he escorts his call girl to his office. Sweet Liu Pingguo is what he would describe as a country bumpkin, recently from the north. Liu Pingguo and her husband An Kun live happily in basically a card board box taped to a water hose. Their love is so cute, so normal that we can easily believe they have lots of sex, as depicted by the director, Li Yu. A female director in China is rare and I appreciate Li Yu’s openness in calling things how they really are throughout the whole film. She nails it. When this film was released it had to be heavily edited, and even then was completely banned in China and censored for her depiction of Beijing and the frank sexuality of this, her third feature. Her second feature Dam Street, about a girl who conjures the wrath of her entire village when she gives away her baby for adoption, won the CICAE Award at the Venice film festival and a smattering of other international accolades. She’s good.
So back to the massage parlor! Liu Pingguo is feisty and at the same time isn’t sure of what she wants. She sticks up for a friend who cuts the toenail off a guy who touched her inappropriately and almost gets fired herself, yet in the end, crosses her own morals and ethics with a serious indiscretion which leads to a heartbreaking quadrangle of love and deceit. Throughout the film, I am never quite sure with her…is she a Madonna, quietly taking the insanity of everyone and continuing to dole out love and temperance or is she a grifting opportunist, ready to sell her family down the river to ‘make it’. Her husband An Kun plays the bumbling anti-hero/hero in the story. Employed as a high-rise window washer, he is in no way impressed with the slick exteriors he cleans and serves as the semi-moral anchor throughout. Semi – because he himself is pulled into the sordid story and falls for the plots and pitfalls of the flashy, embittered couple they become entangled with.
Lin Dong is the owner of the ‘illustrious’ Golden Basin massage parlor, purveyor of call girls and husband to unhappy business woman wife, Wang Mei. Wang Mei, played with an amazing range of passive aggresivism by Elaine Jin who we come to hate, love, hate and love with every flip of her asymmetrical bob. Wang Mei runs her own Chinese medicine business and is almost as successful as her husband. But even with Chinese medicine so readily at her fingertips, she has not been able to conceive a child, more importantly a son, after 16 years of trying. I mean the steady stream of her husband’s call girls is probably not helping matters. We can see Wang Mei’s insecurity, hurt and betrayal etched into even the pores of her acrylic nails and jingle jangle jewelry. The years of anger. The years of sighing. These two couples collide when Liu Pingguo becomes pregnant, and the paternity is questioned. Is it Lin Dong’s sneak attack or is it the loving acts of husband An Kun? And what about the prized, doe-eyed country masseuse herself Liu Pingguo? What was she thinking? And who will get the baby?
Again the director Li Yu masterfully gives us just enough plot to be able to nicely fast-forward every now and then in breathtaking cityscape montages. We see the copious grey metal buildings, grey metal bridges, the last vestiges of crinkled uncle Mao Zedong adorned on old posters in vintage buildings under red lanterns. Communism is dead and it died about 40 years ago. Capitalism is running the show with ease and increasing hunger. One of my favorite shots was the imperial palaces, being strangled by new construction. The film was a goodbye letter or maybe an “I knew you when” letter to Beijing, it’s Cinéma vérité camera style attesting to things present, and things lost.