I Am Not Madame Bovary – Review ****

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The first thing that must be understood about I Am Not Madame Bovary – the curious new dark comedy from Chinese blockbuster director Feng Xiaogang – is that its English title is a clever but misleading attempt at localization. The original Chinese title, translated as I Am Not Pan Jinlian, has nothing to do with the Flaubert novel, but instead references the central character of China’s classic erotic novel The Plum in the Golden Vase, who enlists her lover to help kill her husband, only to be ultimately punished for her deeds by a relative. Though Pan Jinlian is Bovaryesque in certain ways, the new title creates some ultimately unfulfilled expectations, and distracts from what is a compelling (and occasionally confounding) tale of bureaucracy, reputation, and repression.

The film follows the decade-plus-long struggle of Li Xuelian (Fan Bingbing), or Lian, a woman who wishes to undo her recent divorce, insisting that it was “fake,” so that she may be remarried to her husband and properly divorce him again. This demand – patently ridiculous, and obscurely motivated for most of the film – brings her into conflict with a number of increasingly high-ranked elected officials before she ultimately accosts the party chairman at the National People’s Congress in Beijing. This event causes all the officials who stonewalled her to be fired (more to shuffle blame than to resolve Lian’s grievance), and their replacements (including a distant relative of Lian’s, played by Da Peng) seek to find ways to prevent a repeat incident in the following years, while Lian’s old classmate Datou (Tao Guo) tries to woo her after helping her out during her first visit to the National People’s Congress.

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Probably I Am Not Madame Bovary’s most distinctive feature is its odd presentation, which generally takes the form of a circular frame in the middle of the screen, expanding to a classical square aspect ratio for its sequences in Beijing. This is a creative choice that can’t help but call attention to itself, which suits it just fine – the round images emphasize the film’s often excellent photography, and offer opportunities for clever framing choices. There’s been a lot of writing about this film’s look representing the circular nature of bureaucracy – a truth that constantly shapes Bovary’s narrative – or visualizing the restraints on its characters, which may be true, but more than anything else it brings a great deal of visual focus to what may have otherwise been a rather dry-looking picture.

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Though Bovary takes quite a different tone from the romcoms that Feng Xiaogang cut his teeth on, it still shows his pedigree as a director of comedies. What the film lacks in big comedic set pieces or traditional laugh-out-loud moments it makes up for in clever lines and absurd situations highlighting bureaucratic inefficiency – in one memorable scene, members of the National People’s Congress are given a bafflingly overlong warning not to go over time while asking questions. These scenes recall some of the classic Fifth Generation Chinese films that dealt with normal people lost in the labyrinth of bureaucracy – a little bit of Zhang Yimou’s The Story of Qiu Ju and a bit more of the lesser-known The Black Cannon Incident by Huang Jianxin, who has a cameo appearance as the governor of Lian’s home province in what may very well have been a conscious casting gag.

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I Am Not Madame Bovary is a bit of an odd film, ultimately – it’s a film about a woman with a quest that the audience is never convinced she even understands, opposed by men who confidently plot her downfall even as they’re powerless to stop her. The story is a bit bold for China in its teasingly anti-authority streak (not even the party chairman is free from a jab or two), though any firm commentary it wants to make is, either carelessly or judiciously, buried under its dense narrative. It’s a surprise that Feng, generally such a conventional commercial voice, has opted for such a confusing (and confusingly-presented) comedy, but it will be interesting to see where he goes from here with new doors open.

I Am Not Madame Bovary opens in UK cinemas 26th May 2017