I Am Not Madame Bovary (Wo bu shi Pan Jin Lian)
China (2016) Dir. Feng Xiaogang
“Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned” so the saying goes. Yet while the protagonist of this Chinese satire is a scorned woman she is not unleashing hell on anyone – they are very much responsible for doing that themselves. Communist China is about to have its bureaucratic bubble burst.
In a small country province, Li Xuelian (Fan Bingbing) is seeking to divorce her ex-husband after he has re-married but no-one will take up her case, as they are already divorced. Xuelian and her husband Qin Yuhe (Li Zonghan) wanted to buy a second apartment which is prohibited to couples in China, so they got divorced and planned to re-marry after purchasing the domicile, except Qin reneged on the deal.
When lawyers won’t help, Xuelian tries all the local authorities right up to the mayor, all of whom ignore her since she is already divorced. So, Xuelian goes to the top and takes her case to Beijing where she is able to plead her case to a high ranking party official. Heads eventually role but an unsatisfied Xuelian drags the case out for ten years.
Bureaucracy may have its uses; it is the bureaucrats themselves that ruin everything as Feng Xiaogang is happy to demonstrate in this adaptation of the novel I Did Not Kill My Husband by Liu Zhenyun. Xiaogang has been called “The Chinese Spielberg” due to his track records at the Chinese box office with big production comedies and dramas, something this latest outing is a huge departure from.
The English re-titling to reference the classic 19th century French novel by Gustave Flaubert helps us understand the Chinese title. A helpful explanation at the start explains the legend of Pan Jin Lian, a fictional character like Madame Bovary whose promiscuity and infidelity lead to her demise.
In this instance, Pan Jin Lian is used as a slur against Xuelian’s virtue by Qin during a heated showdown, since Xuelian was not a virgin when they married, Qin’s accusation of her of being a loose woman means her word is as stained as her character. Tragically, Xuelian later resorts to offering herself to an old friend as reward for killing Qin on her behalf (neither of which happens).
Perhaps not a direct tale of men vs. women – all the bureaucrats are male, Xuelian the lone female at their mercy – the arrogance of the patriarchal Chinese society is exposed as one huge backslapping, self-preservation boys club. Other women do appear in the film but in secondary roles of little significance or servitude.
At first glance, the issue driving this moral campaign seems rather absurd, not to mention risky, and at the most fundamental level, Xuelian strictly has no-one to blame but herself, not to mention being party to defrauding the law. Conversely, if the law weren’t so austere maybe the couple wouldn’t have felt the need to circumvent it in the first place, a notion put into a chilling and poignant perspective in the denouement.
Before this is two hours plus of Xuelian holding her ground against mounting pressure from the overly comfortable and very rattled jobsworths on the bureaucratic hierarchy to change her mind. It needs to be made clear that Xuelian is not out to cause trouble, she simply wants justice. She has been duped by Qin and in believing the original divorce wasn’t real, she wants it made official purely for closure.
Xuelian’s mindset is arguably naive to be under the impression of still being married to Qin so perhaps the authorities were right to turn her down, since the divorce decision is official, intended or otherwise. Again, we have to wait to learn the real reason behind this but the bigger issue is how Xuelian is fobbed off to other departments, often paying the price, like a spell in jail for confronting the police chief.
From this point forward, Xuelian is deemed a dangerous woman and those in power do their best to avoid her, until they are fired for not fulfilling their duty of listen to the people they serve. New faces fill these roles but Xuelian’s persistence – she turns up in Beijing every year in time for the party conference to launch her case – is now legend having spanned a whole decade.
The dogged resilience and refusal to be bowed to the “man” has the officials running scared, more for their jobs then out of any power Xuelian may wield. The satire is biting and Xiaogang takes great pleasure in twisting the knife as far as the censors will allow, but calling this a comedy is a little spurious with the drama being far more prominent, especially in the aforementioned closing.
Whatever merits the story may have, the biggest challenge is getting past the potentially off putting framing device of a circular aspect ratio . With the focus concentrated on the centre of the screen, the shots avoid close ups in order to get everyone and everything into the frame. This is only for the country setting – in Beijing it expands to a vertical rectangle to represent the space of the big city, swapping to widescreen for the finale.
Get past this and you will see a career best performance from Fan Bingbing, an actress usually known for more glamorous roles who slums it in a completely unglamorous role, yet still remains attractive. But this allows Fan to demonstrate that there is more to her than her looks, taking Xuelian through over two decades of her life, deftly marking each change with credibility, heart and soul.
Arguably the biggest setback is the runtime – 138 minutes is way too long and it feels it. Some trimming would make this much more palatable, although one does get used to the peculiar aspect ratios. I Am Not Madame Bovary has all the makings of a great film and were it shorter it would be one, but stands as a fine curiosity with an important message to share.