As I see it, the new Chinese film, I Am Not Madame Bovary, from director Feng Xiaogang is his best film to date, and easily the best new release I saw in 2016. There’s not a moment in this movie which I didn’t fully enjoy, and to watch Sino actress Fan Bingbing in, possibly, the role of her career — well, that was a pure delight.
This Mandarin language film was ignored by Australia’s mainstream media on its theatrical premiere, which shouldn’t surprise any one in this country who has an interest in Asian cinema. (Albeit, a notable exception was Radio National’s The Final Cut program which treated the film with respect and intelligence. Under Jason Di Rosso’s watch Asian cinema has been a priority of this show.)
If the movie is that good, why have I taken so long to review it? Good question! On its release last November, I watched the picture twice in one week and was all set to write about it. It was at that time I received some bad news health-wise and, fearing the worst, my life went on hold for some weeks. Thankfully, these concerns turned out to be groundless. I’m now making up for lost time.
I Am Not Madame Bovary is about a headstrong woman who takes on the Chinese government after she had been tricked into divorcing her husband. The bureaucrats are deaf to her official grievances, which only makes her more determined in her quest for justice.
You might think China’s one party rule wouldn’t encourage films which were critical of officials and the system. But China’s government has, and during the 1990s Zhang Yimou’s The Story of Qiuju and Huang Jianxin’s Back to Back, Face to Face were big hits on the mainland and overseas. Both films explored the nature of officialdom and how edicts from a central government can have outcomes that only disrupt the lives of citizens.
Feng Xiaogang’s new film opens with the recounting of a popular folktale about an infamous woman, Pan Jin Lian, who caused much trouble during the final years of the Song Dynasty. She has been the focus of Chinese authors, high and low, for centuries. And more recently in feature films, including Clara Law’s 1989 art-house pic The Re-Incarnation of Golden Lotus, and in Hong Kong in 1996 with a popular Category 3 flick Jin Pin Mei, which spawned four sequels that year.
When we first see Li Xuelian (Fan Bingbing) we could be forgiven for thinking that the film is still in the Song Dynasty, as Li appears dressed in peasants’ clothes and standing on a wooden raft crossing a river at dusk. She is wary and nervous as she makes her way to a nearby house where she believes a distant relative lives, who is also the local magistrate.
The official listens quietly to his visitor’s tale of woe: Li wants her recent divorce officially rescinded as it was a sham to enable her to become eligible for subsidised housing. Once she had this asset she intended to remarry Qin Yuhe, her ex-husband. Instead, Qin, within weeks, marries another woman. Li Xuelian is furious and wants the original divorce annulled so she can then officially divorce her good-for-nothing rat bastard of a husband. Yes, it’s all very Chinese but also very entertaining as her long march for legal recognition begins from this moment.
Within days the magistrate rules against her request. What follows is a series of attempts by Li Xuelian to bring her grievances to the attention of local bureaucrats. Most of this is very understated and quite humourous as shown in a scene where an official tries to pass himself off as the bureaucrat’s driver.
Li soon finds out she must threaten officials with legal action before they will take her seriously. And in a sequence which, literally, sets the tone and direction of this film, we watch as a Regional Governor (played by director Huang Jianxin) accepts her notice to sue and later loudly rebukes his colleagues for their treatment of this young woman. He promises her swift and official action. Six months pass and nothing has changed. Li decides to travel to Beijing and sue a senior bureaucrat at the national level.
Feng Xiaogang is the most well-known and successful film-maker in China today. His unique blend of comedy and drama saw titles like Cell Phone (2003) and If You Are The One (2008) become box-office champions, and also found a large loyal audience that had no qualms about watching flawed Chinese people enjoying life often at the expense of others. The grandiose divorce ceremony which opens If You Are The One 2 is a good example of his style.
In the past five years, Feng has concentrated on big budget docudrama, mainly the 1976 Tangshan earthquake feature Aftershock (2010), and recent Chinese history in Back to 1942 (2012). Strangely, these pics seemed more about presenting the CCP in a good historical light.
In 2013, he directed Personal Tailor, a grating concoction of boisterous comedy and social satire, which ends with a bizarre cinema lecture on the dangers of global warming.
It wasn’t until he read Liu Zhenyun’s acclaimed 2012 novel I Did Not Kill My Husband that he got serious again about comedy film-making. In I Am Not Madame Bovary Feng plays to all his strengths: subtle humour, low-key performances and an eye for the mundane where dramatic events take place.
Director Feng’s (who also provides the film’s droll narration) take on his new movie is a surprising one and at times genuinely subversive. These days it’s common to have Sino film-makers showing the gulf between rural and city dwellers and the associated cultural and political problems. What Feng exposes is a chasm between the government and the people via a bureaucracy where self-interest is the embedded culture. Although, he never depicts the officials as being malicious: they do what they do because they have absolutely no reason to do it any other way. In a Hollywood film, we would watch as the bureaucracy is prodded into action and soon finds it can work for the greater good. Feng Xiaogang takes a sledgehammer to this cinematic assumption and shows how events spiral out of control when the bureaucrats lumber out of their comfort zone and actually try to help the citizenry. This film has been described as a satire, but I understand it as being a broad farce made in such a meticulous and understated manner.
It’s impossible to separate Fan Bingbing and this movie, each would be lost without the other. For nearly a decade Fan Bingbing has been Asian eye candy of the highest order, usually appearing in extremely profitable but ultimately forgettable CGI-driven blockbusters from Hong Kong and China (The Twins Effect 2, The White-Haired Witch of Lunar Kingdom) and lately Hollywood (X-Men: Days of Future Past). Early in her film career, she saw herself as a serious actor but soon chose the path of least resistance for a star career where her natural and enhanced beauty were to shine. With the occasional foray into art-house cinema (Buddha Mountain, Lost in Beijing), Fan still harboured the desire to be seen as a serious actor. The moment Liu Zhenyun’s novel was optioned, Fan Bingbing saw the central character of Li Xuelian as being written for her. During the film’s production it was rumoured that the star had agreed to take the role for no salary.
But what a performance: a small restaurant owner in rural China who takes on the Chinese government over what is, effectively, a matter of face. As Li Xuelian, Fan shows us a quite unlikable person who is mostly driven by the need to humiliate her ex-husband. In public, many Chinese support her campaign against the bureaucracy, but in private some brand her as a modern-day Pan Jin Lian.
It’s well worth pointing out that in the past two years Mainland Chinese cinema has produced two extraordinary performances from famous actors whom were cast against type. Zhao Wei in Peter Chan’s Dearest and now Fan Bingbing in I Am Not Madame Bovary. Both films remain virtually unseen outside Asia.
Visually, this movie sets itself apart from any film I saw in 2016, and it’s the shifting film ratios which are so cleverly utilised. About seventy per cent of the film appears in a circular frame which splits the middle of the screen. I’m told this is supposed to represent the traditional image of Chinese painting throughout the ages. As the film unfolds, much of this circular ratio we see in the rural scenes. The use of lush colors to create such a tactile, verdant environment works very well. The other thirty per cent is mainly viewed through a harsh, vertical rectangular frame which is used in nearly all the city-based scenes, and especially where dark-suited bureaucrats are involved. Much of the latter is shot in dried out, dusty colors which only exemplifies the lack of passion or life. This was a major artistic gamble by the film-makers and it has paid off handsomely.
As in all of Feng Xiaogang’s comedies, there’s a gossamer-thin line between humour and tragedy and much of the humour in the final act is decidedly double-edged.
Toward the end of the film there’s a long scene set in a roadside diner where coincidence brings two people together. What follows is a simple conversation that will have you rethinking everything which has gone before. A great scene to round out a great film.