In a small Chinese town, Li Xuelian (Fan Bingbing) and her husband file for divorce. When he spontaneously remarries, Li attempts to take him to court: their own divorce was supposed to be a scam to side-step Chinese real estate laws and enable them to purchase a second apartment. When the local court dismisses Li’s case – her ex-husband denies any kind of scam was intended – she begins a decade-long crusade to prove him wrong and to punish his characterising her as a woman of loose morals.
Feng Xiaogang’s 2016 comedy I Am Not Madame Bovary is a lengthy but beautifully staged absurdist comedy. It is partly about a crusade to save one’s reputation, but it is also a great satire on Chinese bureaucracy and the constant political desire to maintain face rather than solve practical problems. The film is based on Liu Zhenyun’s 2012 novel I Did Not Kill My Husband, and Liu himself adapted the book into a screenplay. Its title has been changed for international markets from I Am Not Pan Jinlian, purely to give non-Chinese audiences a cultural reference they will more readily understand.
The film stakes its success on Fan Bingbing’s central performance, and she delivers one that seems almost certainly a career-best. There is an absurdity to Xuelian’s actions: in effect she wants to have her divorce declared null and void so that she can then divorce all over again in what she sees as a properly legitimate fashion. It is testament to Fan’s acting that such a ridiculous action feels like one worth following and indeed actively rooting for. Her dogged persistence makes her remarkably sympathetic, and that audience sympathy is more than paid off by the film’s unexpected and emotional conclusion.
Blocking Xuelian’s path is a chain of government employees – local magistrates, town councillors, mayors – whose responses to her crusade start with disinterested rebuffs and gradually transform into desperate career-saving histrionics. Xuelian is just one woman, but as she rises through the ranks of the Chinese government – including ambushing the national congress in Beijing – she begins to grow from a tiny irritant to a job-threatening calamity. Soon people are losing their long-earned positions because they have failed to contain her one-woman struggle. It’s an unexpectedly sharp criticism of Chinese government and society, presenting a situation where things happen less to improve the world and more to ensure one’s own job security and privileged position.
Feng shoots the film entirely through a circular frame, save for scenes in Beijing where the picture is framed inside a square. It has two key effects on the film. For one thing the tighter frame gives the film a claustrophobic quality. Actors appear bunched up and huddled just to appear in the picture. Everything seems blocked off and oppressive. The other benefit is one of aesthetics. Within the circular frame individual shots take on the appearance of classical Chinese paintings. It gives the film a fable-like quality, one enhanced by Feng’s own dry narration throughout. At times the framing seems distracting, and certainly it is an experiment that you would not want to see repeated too often, but the benefits in terms of cinematography and tone far outweigh the drawbacks.
The film is definitely overly long, but it is ultimately profoundly effective. It works as a satire, and then its final scenes – presented in a more conventional Cinemascope-style format – give everything one last and powerful kick. I Am Not Madame Bovary is a tremendous, one-of-a-kind picture.