I Am Not Madame Bovary

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Robin Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Robin Clifford 
I Am Not Madame Bovary
Laura Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Laura Clifford 

Li Xianlian (Bingbing Fan) and her husband, Qin Yuhe (Zonghan Li), fake their divorce to get a second apartment. At least, that is the plan. When Qin remarries - not to Lian - she confronts a local official about the ruse, but is turned away with the fake divorce upheld. But, the doggedly persistent Lian will not let go and brings her case to the highest levels in “I Am Not Madame Bovary.”

On the surface, this is a serious film about one woman’s fight against injustice as Lian must buck the system starting with her village magistrate and moving all the way up the ladder to the top of the government hierarchy. But, director Xiaogang Feng takes this one woman battle and turns it around into a very clever, funny dark comedy about bureaucratic incompetence and the women who brings it to its knees.

The story, written by Zhenyun Liu, reminded me, while watching, of maestro Zhang Yimou’s 1992 “The Story of Qi Ju,” starring Li Gong as a pregnant peasant woman seeking redress from the Beijing government because a local official kicked her husband in the groin. Replace “kicked in groin” to “overturn fake divorce” and Qi Ju’s story and Lian’s may seem interchangeable. This could not be further from fact.

The indomitable Lian does not accept the magistrate’s verdict upholding the divorce as legitimate. She is not the kind of woman, though, to follow political protocol and, rather than keep to the rules, she accosts a high ranking government official to plead her case. He, in turn, orders his subordinate to take care of the “problem.” That bureaucrat passes the buck back down the line until it comes back to the mayor of Lian’s town. As the buck is passed up and down the political ladder, Lian grows increasingly belligerent and continues her many lawsuits for a decade. Until, that is, she has a sudden change of heart.

Bingbing Fan stars as the dauntless Lian, a small woman in stature but with the heart and fierce resolve of a tiger in her relentless quest for justice. This serious note is tempered then shattered as the confusion of what to do about Lian is discussed, and never solved, at all levels. This is the tale about one little wrench, in the guise of Lian, thrown into the works, that can bring the government machine to a grinding halt.

The filmmakers use a couple of different projection techniques that, at first, are annoying, until I realize that they are intentionally done and effectively so. Most of the film, as Lian slowly climbs the bureaucratic ladder in her fight for justice, is seen through a round keyhole dominating the center of the screen with the rest in black. This focuses the viewer’s attention on what the filmmakers want you to see, without distraction. The keyhole changes to a rectangular, TV-aspect ratio viewpoint once Lian brings her case to the higher levels of civic government. This, of course, made me wonder if, in the end, we would see everything in widescreen. We do.

The melding of dark satire with the near slapstick bumbling of the politicos spending years on trying to cope with the plight of one small woman who is big in heart, mind and conviction. It will not give anything away if I say that Lian’s real story is not revealed until the end and it is quite touching and genuine in its emotion. I give it an A-.

Li Xuelian (Fan Bingbing, "X-Men: Days of Future Past") agreed to divorce her husband Qin Yuhe (Li Zonghan) in order to procure an apartment restricted to single people by the Chinese Government.  They'd planned to remarry six months later, but Qin betrays her and marries another woman.  When she confronts him, he denounces her as a 'Pan Jinlian,' a mythical Chinese character equated with promiscuous women, because she was not a virgin on their wedding night.  She will spend the next ten years fighting for justice, all the way to Beijing, in "I Am Not Madame Bovary."

Wow, talk about a woman wronged!  This Chinese satire pits an extraordinarily determined woman against an increasingly jittery government hierarchy all scrambling to keep their jobs.  Liu Zhenyun adapts his own novel 'I Am Not Pan Jinlian,' the film retitled for Western audiences, but director Feng Xiaogang's ("Cell Phone") work is distinctly Asian in its look, which uses a circle frame (except for Beijing sequences, where a severe rectangle is engaged) to reflect traditional Chinese art.  The device has the added benefit of focusing our attention where it counts while wondering what might be taking place outside of its frame, the miniaturized view allowing for exquisite production design, as if regarding action taking place within a Wes Andersonesque locket.

Li begins by petitioning local Chief Justice Wang (Peng Da), wishing to file three law suits.  The courts rule against her while officials try to placate her. She continues up the chain, appealing to Mayor Ma (Zhang Jiayi, "Coming Home"). Each higher up reprimands his underling, but nothing gets resolved.  Li goes in Beijing and looks up ex-lover, Zhao Datou (Guo Tao, Johnnie To's "Drug War"), now a chef in the building where a congressional assembly will take place. The Governor arrives to great fanfare, but Li manages to appeal directly He chides his assembly , asking why this small matter has had to travel so far, telling them 'a sesame seed has become a watermelon.' Li asks Datou to help her kill her enemies, even agreeing to sleep with him, but he eventually demurs, believing five murders are too high a price.

Ten years later, Li has still not won her case, but decided not to sue that year.  Elated, County Chief Zhong (Yu Hewei) hopes to curry favor by getting her to sign an affidavit stating so.  His plan backfires.  Datou proposes, offering a new chapter, but he also has a hidden agenda.

Xiaogang closes his black comedy with an abrupt change in tone, a twist which adds a melancholy weight to Li's cause.  The film grows overlong in its second half, but its rebound is worth the wait.  Fan Bingbing is fierce and funny in the lead, one woman taking on a patriarchal system.  Director of Photography Luo Pan reveals great beauty in Li's everyday life, stunning with a shot of a reflected bridge and even a simple woodpile, his depictions of Beijing more austere.

With "I Am Not Madame Bovary," Xiaogang and Zhenyun expose their government as a bureaucracy of stated ideals choked by placation, inaction and blame.

Grade:  A-
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