David vs. Goliath seems to be the theme shrouding Feng Xiaogang’s newest feature, I Am Not Madame Bovary – there had been a lot of talk on what seemed to had been more than just a spat between the film director and the largest Chinese cinema chain, Wanda Cinema Line, who, at least according to director Feng, had not allotted enough screens to his movie. Perhaps the David/Goliath juxtaposition is a bit much in this case; even with the reduced number of screens, “China’s Spielberg” did not hurt his hitmaker credo as I Am Not Madame Bovary, upon its release in 2016, went on to rule the Chinese box office and collected a fair number of film awards as well (and is still working the festival circuit, so you can bet that it’s tally is not complete just yet). I Am Not Madame Bovary received its Italian premiere during the 19th Udine Far East Film Festival, while Feng Xiaogang himself, who has guested with several of his films in Udine in the previous years, received the FEFF’s Golden Mulberry lifetime achievement award prior to the screening.
In terms of Feng Xiaogang’s previous filmography, I Am Not Madame Bovary is definitely a step into a different, very literary direction. The story moves at a slow, poetic, but visually strong pace that requires a fair amount of patience (and a mind that is wide awake). Lin Zhenyun adapted his own novel to create a screenplay which feels like we are still reading, even if our imagination is spared the work by providing a direct visual. This is clear already at the opening, when we, through a series of Chinese paintings, are told the story of Pan Jinlian (whose Western counterpart is Emma Bovary, hence the international title, while the original Mandarin title is Wǒ Búshì Pān Jīnlián), the mythic Chinese adulteress whose story ended in murder, while her character now serves as the paragon of female infidelity.
We then skip straight into the circular frame that binds the story and the fate of a provincial peasant woman, Li Xuelian (Fan Bingbing), who is on a peculiar quest for justice: some months ago, she “fake divorced” her husband so they could upgrade their housing situation. But instead of remarrying her, her ex-husband married someone else. Li Xuelian wants justice to be served – she wants to re-marry the cheater, only so she can divorce him for real this time. The judge declares that she has no case; the original divorce was real, and Li, desperate for some sort of resolution, approaches her ex-husband Qin (Li Zonghan) to get him to admit what he did. Instead of doing that, he publicly humiliates her by calling her Pan Jinlian, stating that she was the first to be unfaithful.
This is not only the final straw, but a straw bale thrown onto Li Xuelian’s back – but it does not break; instead, she uses it to light a fire that will burn for years to come: first she attempts murder, but then chooses a different route: step after step, she approaches officials at different levels to get justice for her case, and when they, in the typical bureaucratic manner, fail to do what she believes is their duty, she starts suing them as well, one by one, all the way up the scale – from the town to the provincial level, until her universe expands into a square frame when she seeks her justice at the very top – in Beijing. However, even though the “perpetrators” get fired and duly punished, her original case still does not receive a resolution. It becomes the yearly project for Li Xuelian; every year, for 11 years, she travels to Beijing and petitions her case, and while the original case still remains unsolved, she becomes a threat and a source of continuing grievance to those figures of authority who would prefer to live their lives in a comfortable, public-official kind of way. They resort to all sorts of methods to stop her ongoing quest – their patience is up on the very year when Li finally feels too tired to continue her quest, but their continuing, pesky, meddlesome behaviour enrages the flames for one last, final battle.
There are so many ways to approach this story; it is not only a David vs. Goliath story, it is a story of an individual who fights the idealistic, but corrupt system. It is a social commentary of a woman who is trying to keep her dignity and get her justice in a world of men. It is a dark satire where flaws of public officials (who all happen to be men) will bring out an occasional, almost involuntary giggle, in a its-funny-’cause-it’s-true manner – no matter which global corner you go to, bureaucrats will be bureaucrats. It is a winded, but still quite direct criticism of all the cracks in the supposedly infallible Chinese government/ideological system, whose ultimate flaw is human nature.
As such, I Am Not Madame Bovary carries a lot of meaning, but it is so. slow. Were it not for the epilogue, served to us in a widescreen frame, the flow and the directions of the story would have made the film completely unredeemable. Watching it, as a woman, I was completely enraged during several moments, not only due to the story, but due to its delivery; since until the very end, I thought that the loudest message that the film could have easily projected got completely lost in the perception of men. And even then, even with the clear depiction of how one “little female” had the world of men scrambling and panicking with her every move, there is no denying that Li Xuelian’s character did not completely escape the male narrative.
In terms of casting, the lead female role was superbly performed by Fan Bingbing; otherwise known as the queen of glamour, her transformation into a peasant, provincial woman was flawless and her depiction of Li Xuelian’s struggle was perfectly on point. The male cast also delivered their satirical, overbearing characters well. Feng Xiaogang’s direction was very deliberate and the use of different frames was very interesting; but the slow pace of the narrative, even if it successfully channels the frustration of Li Xuelian’s cumbersome quest, stretches the audience’s patience very, very thin. It is a film that is most definitely special enough to be worth a watch, but make sure you drink some coffee first, and have a cookie after.
Written by Sanja Struna
All I Am Not Madame Bovary photos © Huayi Brothers
Feng Xiaogang photo courtesy of Udine Far East Film Festival