As its title proclaims, Feng Xiaogang’s bureaucratic satire I Am Not Madame Bovary has no direct connection to Flaubert’s adulterous heroine. Madame Bovary does, however, share some common traits with Pan Jinlian, the fictional 17th century character from Chinese literature name-checked in the film’s original title, who cuckolded then conspired to murder her husband.
Adapted by frequent Feng collaborator Liu Zhenyun from his own 2012 novel, the film follows the increasingly desperate efforts of Li Xuelian (played by Fan Bingbing) to get her divorce to Qin Yuhe (Li Zonghan) reversed. Over a period of 10 years, Lian claws her way through China’s multi-tiered civil service, from provincial judges to county chiefs, to mayors and ultimately the Chairman of the National People’s Congress in Beijing.
On the one hand, I Am Not Madame Bovary is an agonising portrait of the insignificance of the individual, when faced with a bureaucratic behemoth like the People’s Republic of China. Frequently labelled a “peasant” by those in authority, Lian is batted around from one department to the next, with nobody showing the least bit of interest in reviewing her case or even hearing her out. As the film progresses, Lian frequently falls victim to the machinations of other men, be it her ex-husband, distant relative Wang (Dong Chengpeng) or potential love interest Datou (Gou Tao).
On the other hand, Feng often presents the film as an absurd, darkly comic takedown of government. While Lian may feel she is getting nowhere with her case, those in power become increasingly terrified of her. When Lian takes her case to Beijing, and throws herself in front of the Chairman’s car, she catches the attention of one of the country’s most powerful figures. That such a trivial matter as a divorce case has managed to come anywhere close to him sees a barrage of dressing-downs and firings trickle down through the ranks with far greater speed and efficiency than Lian’s case has attempted to move in the opposite direction.
Fan Bingbing appears in almost every scene of the film, and her performance is one of endurance, desperation yet stubborn determination. Betrayed by the man she loved, she is unjustly labelled “Pan Jinlian” - mythical adulteress and murderess - until her frustration leads her to consider murderous revenge, not just on her husband, but on the string of lawmakers and authority figures who failed to help her. What could have been an incredibly bleak and harrowing tale is aided immeasurably by Feng’s acerbic touch. Fan never plays Lian as anything but stone cold serious, opposite a large, almost entirely male cast, but the escalating panic and fear that spreads through the Party gives proceedings an air of refreshing levity, evoking everything from Terry Gilliam’s Brazil to this summer’s Shin Godzilla in the process.
Which brings us to the film’s striking cinematography, shot by Luo Pan who also lensed last year’s Mr. Six, in which Feng played the title role. Following a recent trend from filmmakers as diverse as Wes Anderson and Xavier Dolan, Luo and Feng refuse to employ a conventional aspect ratio. For the most part, I Am Not Madame Bovary is viewed through a perfect circular frame, only shifting to an almost-square when the drama arrives in Beijing.
While the exact reasons for this are left for us to interpret ourselves, the tight round image certainly exacerbates Lian’s sense of entrapment within a vicious circle of bureaucratic bullshit. Only in the film’s final sequence does Feng open up his image to use the full frame, mirroring revelations onscreen in ways not to be mentioned here. What is beyond reproach is the staggering beauty of Luo’s camerawork. Often comprising of a series of still tableaux, the film exquisitely recalls traditional Chinese imagery of idyllic lakes, trees and bridges emblazoned across porcelain dishes or vases.
While the film’s denouement never quite rings true, the journey getting there is a surprisingly enjoyable one. Undeniably overlong but always stunning to look at - not to mention laugh-out-loud funny - I Am Not Madame Bovary is a chilling exposé of a political system, and entire country, geared towards servicing its own state employees rather than the mass populace. Not to mention highlighting the yawning wealth divide that still separates millions of Chinese citizens from those supposedly committed to making their lives better.
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