Directed by Feng Xiaogang
Screenplay by Liu Zhenyun
Cinematography by Luo Pan
Starring Fan Bingbing, Guo Tao, Zhang Jiayi, Li Zhonghan
Film Review by Euan Franklin
Lian (Feng Bingbing) is a peasant-woman, recently divorced – well, sort of. According to her, it’s only a fake divorce used to gain a singles-only apartment with her (ex-)husband Qin Yuhe (Li Zhonghan). But, following the “divorce”, Qin marries another woman. Lian attempts to sue him, but the village court don’t deem it a worthy case. She continues climbing up the political ladder, straining for support, going as far as Beijing to persuade the bureaucratic government. They try and shut her up by sacking all the members of the village legal system, but she still isn’t happy. She spends as long as 10 years returning to Beijing and filing the same lawsuit, but without the desired result.
I Am Not Madame Bovary engages us with a strangely typical narrative: peasant against government, Weak against Powerful, Us-Against-the-World. The rebel is always an appealing character. But what makes this film different from the traditional, heavily politicized, Hollywood biopic? It’s not about apartheid or civil rights – it’s about vengeance for a cheating husband. It’s a small issue taken to such unbelievable heights. The government officials, beginning with indifference, elevate to being fearful about Lian’s potential lawsuits. The harmless peasant becomes a threat. And it’s this unsteady balance of power and authority that makes the film so engaging – even more so than whether or not Lian is successful in her quest.
The aspect ratio is a point of contention among film critics. Feng Xiaogang and cinematographer Luo Pan tell the story through a restricted frame, mostly in the shape of a circular peephole. When Lian travels from her rural community to the urban landscape of Beijing, the frame shifts into a rigid, vertical rectangle. Only in the last five minutes do we have anything familiar. This radical method has been dismissed as nothing more than a distracting gimmick, but it’s more than that. It’s about narrow imaginations. Despite the film’s central focus on Lian, the camera appears to be seeing through the eyes of the suppressive bureaucrats, who collectively insist on their version of the truth. The tunnel-vision suggests a limited perspective. There’s more to the story beyond what we are permitted to see.
Some of the film’s moral integrity is chipped by an ambiguous rape scene between Lian and Zhao Datou (Guo Tao), a man she has known since her schooldays. In a hotel room, the peephole focuses on Zhao repeatedly exiting the frame to approach Lian, off-camera, on the bed. Lian keeps pushing him away, back into frame. Every time he comes back, he removes more of his clothes and approaches her again. It plays out like a Charlie Chaplin sketch. Are we meant to be laughing at this character’s attempt to assault our heroine? In the next scene, she happily agrees to marry him and the suggestion of abuse is no longer an issue. Are Xiaogang and screenwriter Liu Zhenyun trying to romanticise rape? That’s how it comes across. After this scene, it was long before I could return to the rest of the story.
I Am Not Madame Bovary is bizarre, but not too absurd – sitting somewhere in between Kafka and The Thick of It. You do need a certain degree of patience to stick with the story, but this isn’t difficult with the alluring cinematography and Bingbing’s strong emotional performance. The film does fall short of its comedy moments and you lament the potential. Even though the satirical scenes between the bureaucratic officials are often hilarious, the laughter is scarce. It’s a shame because the surreal situation would’ve lent itself, free and willing, to comedy. Perhaps the funny stuff was happening out of frame.