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The sarcasm of superstar director Feng Xiaogang reduces Chinese bureaucracy, the legal system and government inefficiency to ashes in I Am Not Madame Bovary, but risks doing the same for audiences in a caustic, overlong satire whose coy visual effects overpower the story and characters. Starring an unrecognizable Fan Bingbing in the most glammed-down role in her career, the tale of a village woman obsessed with taking her unfaithful husband to court will probably disappoint many of the actress’s fans. However, her relentless chutzpah as a single woman makes her a heroine easy to relate to. Though it doesn’t look like a blockbuster, the film’s staunch criticism of bureaucracy and its dire effects on ordinary people will give it social clout when it bows in China at the end of the month, and its fetching production design and witty comic dialogue could attract scattered art house following in the West.
This marks the re-teaming of the director, actress and screenwriter Liu Zhenyun more than a decade after their 2003 comedy Cell Phone poked fun at contemporary Chinese society and solidified Feng’s reputation as an astute director able to mix popular comedy with social themes. There is an undeniable chemistry in Bovary that makes the offhanded jokes about the grotesque workings of officialdom roll merrily through the scenes. One only wishes Liu’s screenplay, based on his own novel, could have been much shorter and to the point.
The elephant in the room is of a technical nature: Feng’s initially humorous, then increasingly irritating choice to play with radically altering the aspect ratio. If unusual tech work (3D, for instance) tends to be assimilated and forgotten by viewers during the course of a gripping film, here it is just too distracting to go away. The big round mask that frames the story gives the feeling of examining a Chinese painting or miniature in which all the detail is present but very hard to make out. Fan Bingbing’s face, for example.
Recounting an entire two-hour film through a telescope is something that wouldn’t have occurred even to D. W. Griffith. At first this self-imposed limitation raises a smile, but when it becomes clear the film is not going to open up to any sort of full screen, the gag becomes a burden. The only relief to be found, ironically, is during the sequences set in Beijing at a national congress, when Feng and his cinematographer Luo Pan switch to the luxury of a vertical, nearly square mask. If the round framing suggests an ancient world that has survived unchanged into the present day, the vertical rectangle is the visual equivalent of a rigid but off-kilter social system.
Liu Zhenyun’s screenplay strongly recalls Zhang Yimou’s The Story of Qiu Ju, in which Gong Li portrayed a pregnant peasant who seeks justice for her husband from distant public officials. Here the heroine is Li Xuelian, or Lian, an uneducated village woman who has a grievance. In order to qualify for a second apartment, available only to singles, Lian and her husband Qin agree to divorce. After they do, Qin is assigned the long-for apartment, but instead of remarrying Lian as planned, he marries someone else. Lian is left hurt, angry and out in the cold.
She files suit to remarry Qin, then divorce him “for real”, but the county court under Judge Wang throws the case out. Next she boldly accosts to the chief justice, the county chief and finally the mayor, but each of these officials brushes her off in amusing, well-written and acted scenes that draw laughs. When she confronts Qin directly, he refuses to admit their divorce was a scam and counter-attacks by accusing her of being a “Madame Bovary”, which has been explained in a teasingly erotic opener as being the Chinese synonym for slut.
Peering through the telescope, one sees the angry Lian flailing around in her tiny world, which resembles a series of masterful paintings in Han Zhong’s stunning production design. Stymied at every turn, she decides to take her case to Beijing. There she stays with an old schoolmate, Zhao Datou (Guo Tao), who once had a crush on her. As luck would have it, he’s now a chef in the building where high officials gather once a year for the National People’s Congress. Her eyes brighten up. Feng cleverly leaves her encounter with the main man off screen; the big shot himself describes it to the assembly, shamelessly using her case as an example of bad government. His own political agenda is clear, particularly after he fires the county chief, the chief justice and mayor.
The delegates’ subservience to anything he says is rollicking, and these congress scenes are the most successful bits of lampooning in the film.
Lian goes to a temple to thank Buddha for serving justice on her enemies, but what about the treacherous Qin, who is still at large? She’s far from done.
The second half of the film, which takes place ten years later, is basically a variation of the first half, and a feeling of tiredness sets in. A new set of officials is in place and terrified of Lian, who has continued petitioning all these years. They will do anything to stop her coming to Beijing and embarrassing them in front of higher-ups on the totem pole – anything but resolve her case, which is ultimately the saddest joke.
Despite the wheel-spinning repetitions, certain key scenes are left out, like the question of whether Lian has a child and where he or she might be. More crucially, the whole problematic of the insult to her morality is ignored, although it is mentioned several times that being called a Madame Bovary in public is the worst possible humiliation. Yet oddly no one seems to remark on it besides Lian herself.
Like the fighter she plays, Fan Bingbing holds her own against a big all-male cast who are all against her, and shows off her gifts as a comedienne in a surprisingly low-key role. As the film goes on, her ragged bundle of clothes and dust-mop hair turn slightly more presentable, but her gruff peasant ways barely change. A final revelation scene is the only glimpse we really get of the actress’s familiar face.
Production companies: Beijing Sparkle Roll Media, Huayi Brothers Media, Beijing Skywheel Entertainment, Huayi Brothers Pictures, Zhejiang Dongyang Mayla Media
Cast: Fan Bingbing, Guo Tao, Da Peng, Yin Yuanzhang, Feng Enhe, Liu Xin, Zhao Yi, Zhao Lixin, Jiang Yongbo, Liu Hua, Li Zonghan, Huang Jianxin, Gao Ming, Yu Hewei, Zhang Jiayi, Tian Xiaojie, Zhang Yi
Director: Feng Xiaogang
Screenwriter: Liu Zhenyun, based on his novel
Producer: Hu Xiaofeng
Executive producers: Wang Zhonglei, Jerry Ye
Director of photography: Luo Pan
Production designer: Han Zhong
Editor: William Chang Suk Ping
Music: Du Wei
World sales: Wild Bunch
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