I Am Not Madame Bovary

 

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A Chinese black comedy that reveals its hand very late in the day.

 
I Am Not Madame Bovary


 

This may well be the most adventurous film yet by the Chinese director Feng Xiaogang, who was born in 1958. Two earlier films of his released here - the period piece The Banquet (2006) and the earthquake drama Aftershock (2010) - have illustrated his competence in making commercially appealing works. Now in this adaptation by Liza Zhenyun of her novel we have an intriguing work that commands attention on a higher level.

 

The story told here is centred on Li Xuelian, otherwise known as Lian, a role admirably suited to the talents of Fan Bingbing. When we first meet her she is approaching a judge, Wang (Da Peng), to challenge his earlier recognition of the validity of her divorce from Qin Yule (Li Zhonghan). Lian now claims that the divorce application had been a sham put forward to enable her to obtain a second apartment not available to married couples. Qin had gone on to betray her by marrying another woman, but she now wants to set the record straight and to squash the bad reputation that has attached to her consequent on Qin comparing her to the legendary adulteress of an earlier age, Pan Jinlan. Indeed, this film's original title was I Am Not Pan Jinlan but, since that name may be famous in China it is hardly known elsewhere, the western world is seeing this film renamed so as to be meaningful: thus the new title of I Am Not Madame Bovary with its reference to Flaubert's novel.

 

Li Xuelian's quest for justice by way of revenge starts with a plan to murder not just Qin but the key legal  figures who had been involved including Chief Justice Zheng (Yu Hewei), County Chief Shi (Zhao Lixin), Major Ma (Zhang Jiayi) and Wang himself. This is presented as black comedy akin to a less witty Kind Hearts and Coronets but, as Lian also seeks to petition in distant Beijing during the annual National People's Congress held there, the film while retaining its humorous tone becomes a portrayal of a bureaucratic system that thwarts the obtaining of justice.   If this at times suggests a Kafkaesque world, it is also the case that the film's portrait of self-serving leading citizens has affinities with the critical stance towards corruption in Romania that fuels the recent Graduation.

 

I Am Not Madame Bovary

 

If the material is ambitious, so too is the visual treatment which plays intelligently with variations on the screen shape. The restricted horizons of life in Lian's hometown are reflected in the use of a circular image which, when the scene changes to Beijing, opens up not to fill the whole screen but to offer a central image no longer circular. Something closer to the 'Scope format is held in reserve to represent Lian's post-traumatic life in the film's final scene. In all cases the colour photography is impressive, but while one respects this film hugely it suffers from two important defects. One is its excessive length (all of 139 minutes) and the other is some uneasy switches in tone. Li's relationship with an old admirer (Guo Tao) results in black comedy yielding briefly to touches of darker drama while the finale rather unsatisfactorily offers an entirely fresh angle on the material. This segment looks set to be a mere epilogue, but what is revealed in it gives a new perspective to all that has gone before. Some may regard this as clever, yet it is akin to driving a cart and horses through everything that the film's central tone had suggested. 

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Cast: Fan Bingbing,  Guo Tao, Zhang Yi, Da Peng, Li Zhonghan, Zhang Jiayi, Zhao Lixin, Yu Hewei, Tian Xiaojie, Fan Wei, Gao Ming, Liu Hua, Huang Jianxin, Li Chen.

 

Dir Feng Xiaogang, Pro Zhang Dajun and Ho Xiaofeng, Screenplay Liu Zhenyun, from her novel I Am Not Pan Jinlan, Ph Luo Pan, Pro Des Han Zhong, Ed Chang Suk Ping William, Music Du Wei, Costumes Gu Jinhua.

 

Beijing Sparkle Roll Media Corporation/Huayi Brothers Media Corporation/Beijing Skywheel Entertainment Co. Ltd/Huayi Brothers Pictures Ltd-Thunderbird.
139 mins. People's Republic of China. 2016. Rel: 26 May 2017. Cert. 12A.