The original Madame Bovary is one of the most famous women in literature – marrying a boring man who loves her, stifled by provincial life and engaging in adulterous affairs to escape the banality and emptiness around her. The woman at the centre of Xiaogang Feng’s very Chinese social comedy does none of that but, ironically, acquires the same reputation as Flaubert’s tragic heroine.
Lian (Bingbing Fan) lives in a provincial town and finds herself up against the complexities of the Chinese legal system when she tries to overturn her divorce from her husband Qin (Li Zonghan). The motives behind their split are questionable, but the courts uphold the divorce – so she starts a ten year campaign challenging the decision. It brings her into conflict with judges and, as time goes on, high ranking politicians – men in suits who are all repeatedly confounded by a peasant woman from the provinces.
The first thing that hits you right between the eyes is the film’s visual style – and it is utterly stunning. Opening with traditional Chinese paintings in perfectly round frames, it sustains that circular setting throughout all the scenes in the provincial town where Lian lives. Constraining the shot in this way makes for a tight focus on the characters and the tiny details to be found in every scene. But it also blesses cinematographer Pan Luo with a remarkable amount of freedom when it comes to his composition. The circle isn’t just a frame but an integral part of the shot itself: sometimes the scenery nestles within its round setting, sometimes it blends into it. Sometimes Pan Luo plays visual tricks, fooling us into thinking we’re watching a scene when what we’re seeing is a reflection. However the shot is composed, it’s perfection every time.
When the story moves away from the little town, the photography is framed differently, in something approaching 4:3 ratio. Straight lines and right angles, more formal and stiff, in keeping with the majority of scenes which involve the political machinations of the government officials and the judiciary. They echo the formality of the massive National People’s Congress sessions, where every delegate has somebody assigned to look after their particular teapot and cup, and where it’s somebody’s job to make sure that all the chairs are lined up perfectly – before the congress opens and that precise line is shattered in an instant. To western eyes, it all looks more than a little ridiculous.
But most ridiculous of all are the officials that Lian manages to outfox at every turn. They’re no match for the canny, determined woman who will go to just about any lengths to get what she wants. Except that she doesn’t get it. She may run rings round the officials, all of whom are far more interested in protecting themselves and their positions than actually resolving her complaint, but she never gets the judgement over turned. Because, just as they don’t know how to deal with her and her constant lobbying, she doesn’t really know how to cut through the bureaucracy. The irresistible force has met the immovable object and all Lian has succeeded in doing is making the regional officials look incompetent in the eyes of their superiors. Not quite what she had in mind.
As for her Madame Bovary reputation – or Pan Jinlian, in other words a murdering adulteress – it’s a label her ex-husband gives her after the divorce. Once he’s signed on the dotted line, he sets about getting himself another wife, but that wasn’t the arrangement he made with his ex. She makes his life so irksome that he resorts to blackening her name with the one phrase that he knows will both stick and destroy her reputation.
I Am Not Madame Bovary is a fascinating, ironic and eye-opening insight into modern Chinese life, one where mobile phones exist alongside traditional acrobats, where the once mandatory one child policy is taking a long time to fade into history and where a solitary woman fighting a male-dominated establishment isn’t simply unusual – it’s downright embarrassing. The film may be overly wordy and, at over two hours, longer than it should be, but it’s an immensely rewarding and enlightening watch.