The film opens with silence, against a backdrop of stark black and white credits. The narration of the legend of ‘Pan Jinlian’ begins – a woman whose reputation for promiscuity preceded her, likening her to the western figure of Madame Bovary. The story is depicted through picturesque rainy landscape imagery, resembling Chinese silk paintings from the Song dynasty, as the sound of drums and thunder emanate from the distant surrounding hills. This transitions into a theatrical frame of Li Xuelian (Fan Bingbing), our ‘Madame Bovary’. The entire opening is beautifully choreographed with a circular frame, which I have never seen before in cinema.
Li’s search for justice began after a fake divorce from her now re-married ex-husband Qin Yuhe (Li Zonghan). After being branded ‘Pan Jinlian’ by Qin in front of several of his friends in the village, a label which can ruin her, the mission to sue him in an effort to clear her name and seek justice becomes more dire. Struggling through the justice system results in 10 years passing without any satisfaction for Li, leaving her stuck in a static state of being ignored and disheartened.
Contemplating the character of Li brings Freud’s hysterical woman to mind. She is one-minded, persistent, and you sense her frustration and desperation through the urgency Fan Bingbing brings to the character. What’s interesting about Li is that you don’t particularly feel any sympathy for her story initially, and it is her treatment by incompetent male officials that changes this. The officials are self-critical suck ups, who claim they want to help, but don’t do anything besides looking out for their own jobs. They essentially want the problem to go away, and berate Li for causing public scenes. No one treats her with any respect, even her fiancé Datao, who is only looking out for himself and sullies her name yet again. However, that’s not to say Li is without fault. Her one mindedness prevents her from moving on, and turns her into a miserable spinster, which is frustrating to watch. There really are no likable characters in this film.
There are some surprises however in the story – hidden moments of humour dispersed throughout the film, and some beautifully sombre moments with her Datao, as they sightsee in Beijing. The film loses its way slightly half-way through with an unusually long scene at the National People’s Congress which is far too heavy on the dialogue.
The philosophical ending, ridden with metaphors, doesn’t bring much in the way of closure or satisfaction, and the 10-year lawsuit does border on the ridiculous side, yet there is still something beautiful about the bizarreness of this film. Despite, the issues with story the film is something to see purely for the cinematography by Luo Pan. Feng Xiaogang is undeniably innovative with his different aspect ratios, and it’s refreshing that there is actual cause for the circular frame- it portrays Li’s story as a modern day Chinese fable, mirroring that of Pan Jinlian.
Dir: Feng Xiaogang
Prd: Hu Xiaofeng
Cast: Fan Bingbing, Guo Tao, Zhang Jiayi, Yu Hewei
Scr: Liu Zhenyun
DOP: Luo Pan
Music: Du Wei
Runtime: 138 mins
I Am Not Madame Bovary is in UK cinemas 26th May 2017.