I Am Not Madam Bovary is a Chinese film adapted for the screen by Liu Zhenyun from his 2012 novel, I Did Not Kill My Husband. The use of the name of Gustave Flaubert’s 19th Century novel is to make thematic connections for audiences familiar with the tragic titular adulteress (the Chinese/Japanese title features the name of another fallen woman famous throughout East Asia) but it is also quite apt since it details one woman’s determined efforts to clear her name of adultery and seek legal justice. This story starts out as a seemingly little domestic spat in a provincial town but turns into a ten-year odyssey of absurd quantities that nearly reaches the highest level of state as the film turns into a mischievous critique cheekily challenging Chinese officialdom through satirising the legal system.
The woman at the centre of the story is Li Xuelian (Fan Bingbing), a recently-divorced peasant from provincial China who pursues her ex-husband Qin Yule (Li Zhonghan) through the courts in order to quash the original real but, to her, fake divorce and then get an actual real divorce.
If that sounds confusing to you then imagine the confusion of government officials who find themselves hearing her demands and seeing the paperwork. From local judges to those in high government office, Xuelian chases them and effectively besieges this bewildered bunch because what they don’t know or choose to ignore is that her original divorce was fake because it was part of a scam to get a new house reserved for single people with her ex-husband after which they would remarry and have a place for their family to live happily together. Alas, her husband used the fake separation as a chance to marry another woman and now she wants the chance to divorce for real to show that he was in the wrong.
This is the groundwork for an absurd comedy as people get sucked into this legal whirlpool but things get more complicated and even a bit feminist in the ensuing legal battle as Qin Yuhe tarnishes Xuelian’s name with claims of infidelity by labelling her Pan Jillian, a legendary villainess in Chinese history (the aforementioned woman in the Chinese title) known for being an unfaithful wife who poisoned her husband and the patron goddess of brothels and prostitutes. This is explained at the start of the film in a series of old paintings. The worst thing that Xuelian may have done is to have had sex before marriage.
Murder and breaking of Confucianist ideas aside, female sexual agency is a controversial topic in most cultures but to be called Pan Jinlian is a step too far and so viewers will understand why Xuelian resents being labelled as such, more so when they factor in that rumours spread amidst these regions where everyone seems to be related to each other. It is tempting to see her story as somewhat symbolic of the social position of women especially since all of the officials she butts heads with are men. She will camp outside their grand offices and bring them unwanted attention by holding signs. She will wait in a car park of a fancy restaurant under pouring rain with little more than a plastic sheet for cover and dash at them as they head towards their expensive foreign cars. She will ambush them outside meetings, clutch at the sleeves of their fancy coats, and attempt to get an audience with them. Despite her protests and appeals, she is ignored by the courts who regard the divorce as real and so, over the course of ten years she takes drastic action to have her legal rights heard by various levels of government, and each year she finishes with a protest outside the National Congress in Beijing, something which embarrasses the party leadership who try and silence her.
Maybe calling this film feminist is too much since the focus is on one doughty unglamorous woman trying to overcome a line of well-heeled, cowardly officials who represent the grand bureaucracy that runs China. They pass themselves off as alternately august, diligent, indifferent, and intelligent – men of the people enforcing just laws. However, despite being able to quote lofty epigraphs from philosophical and political books, these men are revealed to be mostly selfish, vainglorious and eager to save their jobs or climb the career ladder so it is amusing to seem them brought low or panic in a bathetic manner whenever Xuelian shows up to interrupt a fancy dinner. “She needs to be lead in a positive direction,” they idealistically and somewhat arrogantly say before meeting the stubborn energetic woman and then their opinions change. They start referring to her as Dou E and Lady White Snake, other females from classical Chinese myths with the power to bring down high-ranking officials. This little peasant woman has them so scared they seek the back door and ask for the police to intervene. Her antics raise the spectre of the masses rebelling. If it starts with one person, unhappiness can spread. Will the government listen or continue trying to silence her? That is for the audience to discover.
The journey towards that discovery is full of beautiful sights. Director Feng Xiaogang presents his film in an aesthetically challenging way by showing the action mostly in a circular or square frame, thus cutting off what is happening outside of the frame. This results in the actors being forced to stay still or refrain from moving too much, the editing kept to a minimum, the camera work remaining simple and the viewer made to look at the composition of the scene. The audience are forced to look at the characters and make decisions about them through what they wear and how they act but this also gives the film the quality of a painting. Apparently, this is a reference to the way that ancient Chinese landscape paintings were depicted and this adds to the sense that Chinese society is being questioned. Regardless, every shot is beautiful to look at especially with the creative lighting that Xiaogang uses, whether it is the lime and jades waterways of the provinces and Xuelian’s riverside cafe, or the clay-red dusty streets of Beijing.
Daring social commentary and beautiful cinematography aside, audiences may feel frustrated at the length of a film where a woman pesters the legal establishment for over two hours but I found stubborn and determined Xuelian charming and the film’s subtle comedy beguiling and funny enough to hold my attention so that when the end came I was unprepared for a bitter surprise.
After seeing the world through circular and square frames, people rigidly stuck in position, and Xuelian braving social stricture, the ending is when the film finally broadens out its frame to wide screen and it comes as Xuelian reveals her motivation for pursuing the case for so long. Her reason is a detail that is mentioned by her at the start in a jumble of words she spills out in frustration to her first legal advisor but audiences may forget it. The film crescendos with a reminder and it provides a particular sting in the tail of this story which utterly subverts the comedy and will probably leave audiences feeling some of the depth of Xuelian’s sorrow. It turns out that the title I Am Not Madame Bovary (or Pan Jinlian) couldn’t be more appropriate.
I Am Not Madame Bovary received its Japanese premiere on March 4 at the Osaka Asian Film Festival and will be shown again on March 9.