Magazine article Screen International

'I Am Not Madame Bovary': Toronto Review

Magazine article Screen International

'I Am Not Madame Bovary': Toronto Review

Article excerpt

Dir. Feng Xiaogang, China, 2016, 128 minutes

A woman's campaign to restore her honour after a fake divorce and charges of sexual misdeeds fuels Feng Xiaogang's relentless satire of Chinese corruption and hypocrisy. With Fan Bingbing as the intrepid plaintiff, I Am Not Madame Bovary is also a j'accuse on the plight of women who dare question authority in that country.

Despite its sourness on Chinese politics - sexual or otherwise - I Am Not Madame Bovary has a sublime visual elegance, telling its story much of the time with wondrous pictorial effects in a round frame that feels like a magnifying glass.

This moral tale with no promise of a happy ending should ride on Fang's stardom to reach Chinese audiences globally. The comedy of Chinese bureaucracy may seem arcane at first to a non-Chinese public, yet the story of a woman wronged - which promises a marketing campaign with a glamorous actress in fashion glossies and social media - will help pave the way. Cinephiles from the other end of the spectrum will also be drawn to the refinement of Feng Xiaogang's aesthetic experiment, which needs to be seen on a big screen.

I Am Not Madame Bovary is Feng's adaptation of Liu Zhenyun's 2012 novel I Am Not Pan Jinian. Pan Jinian is a Chinese term for a promiscuous woman, and the title has been translated in other languages as I Am Not a Whore. Liu also wrote the screenplay for Back to 1942 (2012), Feng's adaptation of Liu's 1990 war famine novella Remembering 1942.

Li Xuelian (Fan Bingbing), a village woman, is accused of being an adulteress. She also petitions a local court to void her divorce from her husband, which she claims was a fake, contrived in order to get a second residence. As the court rejects her claim, her remarried ex-husband, Qin Yule (Lin Zhongan), repeats the charge of adultery, and Li Xuelian aims up the judicial ladder toward Beijing.

The film is part Scarlet Letter, part Keystone Cops, part miniature landscape painting - all with plot twists worthy of Thomas Hardy. Desperate for allies, Li enlists a cook, Zhao Datou (Guo Tao), who confesses that he's lusted after her for years. First she asks him to kill all the officials who won't overturn her divorce. When she shifts to suing at the highest level, just as a National Party Congress is about to meet, officials panic.

Chinese audiences are likely to recognise their government here as layers of careerists and opportunists in dark suits. …

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