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I Am Not Madame Bovary
I Am Not Madame Bovary (2016)

Fan Bingbing is not Madame Bovary in I Am Not Madame Bovary.
Chinese: 我不是潘金蓮
Year: 2016
Director: Feng Xiaogang
Producer: Hu Xiaofeng
Writer: Liu Zhenyun

Fan Bing-Bing, Guo Tao, Da Peng, Zhang Jiayi, Yu Hewei, Yin Yuanzhang, Feng Enhe, Lin Xin, Zhao Yi, Zhao Lixin, Jiang Yongbo, Liu Ha, Li Zonghan, Huang Jianxin, Gao Ming, Zhang Jiayi, Tian Xiaojie, Zhang Yi, Li Chen, Hu Ming, Fan Wei

The Skinny: Feng Xiaogang scores again with super-dry satire I Am Not Madame Bovary, starring Fan Bingbing as the woman who isn’t Madame Bovary. A super-smart, well-played and relevant work from China’s master troll filmmaker.
by Kozo:

Director Feng Xiaogang is at it again, trolling audiences and institutions with his movies and still coming up smelling like roses. Feng returns with I Am Not Madame Bovary, a (What else?) scathing satire about one woman and her decade-long battle against China’s patriarchal society. The insanely beautiful Fan Bingbing successfully frumps it up as Li Xuelian, a common woman looking to sue her husband. She wants to undo their fake divorce, which they arranged to secure a property, so she can remain legally married to him and then divorce him again – all because he shacked up with another woman during the fake divorce. The situation sounds as ridiculous to characters inside the film as it does to the audience, but the officials she approaches are so circumspect that they’ll only hint that she should take a hike. Feng uses this situation to skewer how different classes interact, with characters avoiding what they want to say while plainly indicating exactly what they mean. This is a bone-dry comedy of manners and right in Feng Xiaogang’s expansive wheelhouse.

The “Madame Bovary” namedrop in the film’s English title is actually “Pan Jinlian” in the Chinese title, referencing the infamous temptress of the 17th century novel Jin Pin Mei, which was adapted fairly recently into film as, uh, Sex and Chopsticks. In retaliation for Xuelian’s actions, her husband accuses her of having an affair or being a Pan Jinlian – hence the titular protest, “I am not Pan Jinlian.” The insult prompts Xuelian to trek to Beijing to complain to someone higher ranked than the local officials. Through Zhao Datou (Guo Tao), an old classmate who harbors some lingering feelings for her, Xuelian gets an audience with a high-ranking politician, leading to people getting fired because if a common person travels all the way from the sticks to the capital to complain, something must be going wrong. Right? This series of events is basically an illustration of how molehills become mountains, with a message delivered up the social ladder via the Telephone Game, leading to unintended and dryly hilarious consequences.

I Am Not Madame Bovary then cuts ahead to ten years into the future. Xuelian has since made an annual habit of going to the capital to complain, and now the bureaucrats want her to stop. They sound like they want to please her but they really don’t – they just want to placate her with enough nice-sounding words that she won't sue them or their bosses. So Xuelian considers suing anyway because they're telling her not to sue – and, hey, nobody puts Li Xuelian in a corner! The idea that a person would do the opposite of what someone else wants simply because that someone else is pushing the person to behave in a certain way…well, that sounds vaguely like this past cycle of global politics, doesn’t it? Similarities to deplorable voting patterns aside, Madame Bovary offers something of a parable on the ridiculousness of bureaucratic institutions and communication in China, while still speaking to universal concepts of human interaction and self-interest. The film also has an undeniable feminist slant, as it features a woman fighting back against a system that seems designed – intentionally or not – to keep her down.

Though obvious in which direction it leans, the film maintains a consistent distance from its subject matter, largely through technique. I Am Not Madame Bovary is famously presented in a circle frame with predominantly flat compositions, and characters are usually framed in medium or full shots. When Li Xuelian travels to Beijing, the frame opens up to a larger rectangle that, while still smaller than your typical cinema aspect ratio, is fitting for the capital’s larger, less provincial expanse. This style works in a number of ways; the narrative is given structure when the frame expands or contracts, greater attention is drawn towards dialogue instead of image, and the lack of close-ups makes the camera’s gaze less objectifying. As such, the film’s dialogue and staging become key to audience experience, much like with a stageplay, though how one parses the work depends on the individual. Also, the fact that the camera is usually not situated near Fan Bingbing’s face makes it easier for her to portray a peasant. Conversely, when she finally does get a close-up, the effect of her beauty is that much greater.

I Am Not Madame Bovary might be an easier sell to Western audiences than some of Feng’s populist blockbusters (e.g., If You Are the One) because it clearly comments on a bureaucratic, controlling regime a.k.a. China. The best evidence of this is a scene near the end where one character seriously intones that "the Rule of Law" will take care of everything. It's a line that could slip by less attentive audiences – or worse, audiences who think that it's being said unironically. However, given everything that we know – about Feng Xiaogang and his penchant for punching up, down or whichever which way – it becomes delicious satire. It's actually surprising how much pointed commentary that Feng can sneak in. But that's pretty much been his deal for a while: to use filmmaking to poke, prod or burn some person or institution while pretending not to. I Am Not Madame Bovary is yet another trolltastic win for Feng Xiaogang and further proof of the incredible control that he has as a master of filmmaking craft, and as an artist working within a limiting system. There’s probably not a smarter director working in China today. (Kozo, 4/2017)



DVD (Hong Kong)
Region 3 NTSC
Edko Films Ltd. (HK)
16x9 Anamorphic Widescreen
Mandarin Language Track
Dolby Digital 5.1 / DTS
Removable English and Chinese subtitles
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