By Emmanuelle Khoo
Directed by Feng Xiaogang, I Am Not Madame Bovary is a stellar, satirical masterpiece that incorporates a powerful and intriguing storyline, a kick-ass heroine and beautiful cinematography.
Playing the lead is none other than China’s superstar, Fan Bingbing. Fan plays Li Xuelian, a village woman who stages a fake divorce with her husband Qin Yuhe (Li Zonghan) to secure a second apartment reserved by the government for single people. The plan was to remarry once the apartment was sorted. However, she found herself betrayed six months later when Qin decided to marry a different woman. Li decided to bring her case to the County Court, Chief Justice, the County Chief and the Mayor, eventually climbing up the judicial ladder towards Beijing but her efforts failed to produce any results. To make things worse, her ex-husband publicly accused her of being a “潘金莲” (pan jinlian; equates to “a whore”) which had destroyed both her case and her reputation.
The film is bold on many levels, visually striking with engaging dialogue/nuances, a far cry from the bland commercial or dire arthouse wannabes. In this social satire, Feng Xiaogang played on the problems of everyday and delivered a funny, and observant diagnosis of contemporary China, part-melodrama and part-slapstick that is different from his previous works. Everything from its storyline, sequences, colours, production are top-notch, earning the film many awards and much critical acclaim (see list of awards below). The storyline of a heroine who rises up to challenge her social position and the authorities, is both appealing and relatable to anyone.
Putting the film into context:
The Chinese title of the film 《我不是潘金莲》 immediately reveals a centralised plot revolving around restoring Li’s marred reputation and her quest for retribution. Fan gave a striking performance as a tempest on a mission; her character is fearless, humourless and most of all, angry. Adapted from the Chinese novel of the same name written by Liu Zhenyun, the director borrowed Madame Bovary, the central figure of Gustave Flaubert’s novel (1856) to situate pan jinlian to a global audience. Pan Jinlian is a well-known literary figure in the 17th century Chinese classics (‘The Plum in the Golden Vase’ and ‘Water Margin’). This femme fatale also enjoyed similar notoriety as Madame Bovary and had since, became a derogatory term in Chinese for an adulteress. Meanwhile, Flaubert’s novel is centred around Emma Bovary, a doctor’s wife whose disparity between her romantic ideals and the realities of country life that got her involved in adulterous affairs, insurmountable debt and eventual suicide. Viewers may assume parallels can be drawn from Li Xuelian and Madame Bovary but it is quite the opposite. The protagonist fervently denies this accusation and fights against the injustices towards her.
I Am Not Madame Bovary is unusual and unconventional in many ways. Under the guise of a comedy, the film raises question on very real and current issues in contemporary China. For instance, in China you may see eager couples (fake or real) getting divorced for the purpose of buying a second property. For years, Chinese authorities had churned out measures to cool the local real-estate market, one of them placing a high deposit (between 50-70%) to restrict the purchase of a second home. For married couples, the answer to buying another property was to get a divorce for it allows one of the recently divorced partners to qualify for the lower down payment (about 30%). Like these couples, Li and her ex-husband was left with no choice but to cheat the system.
The plotline presents an underlying message reveals the director’s sensitivity towards the pain and joy of the everyday Chinese citizen. Feng cleverly turns to comedy to make everyday parlance and nuances, and miscommunication between the characters of different backgrounds and social status, amusing with bone fide laugh-out-loud moments.
Half the film (as the trailer reveals) is also shot and shown in a circular aspect ratio, mirroring the literati paintings of the Song Dynasty. The pictorial effects in a round frame also feel as though we are looking through a telescope, or a peep show. This circle later morphs into an oblong frame as Li goes to Beijing. Perhaps this unconventional frame adds to the comedic elements in the film by presenting the story or life as a comic strip. The film also cheekily uses a series of oil paintings in the style of antique erotica to briefly illustrate the story of Pan Jinlian.
Although it is always best to know your Mandarin or have some in-sight to contemporary Chinese society, it is safe to say all viewers will fully grasp the storyline and social situation without getting confused. It is a remarkable film that is indeed different and beautiful.
‘I am Not Madame Bovary’ will be available in selected UK cinemas on 26th May 2017
5月26日，英国笑看方圆 – IN CINEMAS MAY 26
64th San Sebastian Film Festival – Best Film & Best Actress
41st Toronto International Film Festival – FIPRESCI Special Presentations
11th Asian Film Awards – Best Actress & Best Cinematography
53rd Golden Horse Awards – Audience Choice Award & Best Director