understand Li Xuelian’s situation, you would be better served reading Kafka
than Flaubert. Appealing her legal case all the way to Beijing is truly a Kafkaesque,
Sisyphean process. Yet, Li persists because her honor is at stake. She was not
merely betrayed by her ex-husband, he dubbed her a Pan Jinlian, in reference to
the infamous murdering adulteress of Chinese literature. The title is awkwardly
Flaubertized, but the portrayal of China’s legal and political system burns
like acid in Feng Xiaogang’s darkly absurdist I am not Madame Bovary (trailer here), which opens this
Friday in New York.
and her husband Qin Yuhe hatched a plan to temporarily divorce, thereby
entitling him to a newer, larger company apartment of his own. Of course, they
were to subsequently remarry after sufficient time had passed, except Qin
double-crossed her, marrying another woman instead. Li is not sophisticated or
well-educated, but she still will not take his treachery lying down. She will
plead her case in court and when the provincial judges condescendingly dismiss
her, she will appeal her to the county seat and ultimately all the way to
each level, Li gets the brush-off, but she is a quick study. By the time she
reaches Beijing, she understands the value of symbolic protest. Soon after she
stops the Party chairman’s limo, many of the bureaucrats who dismissed her case
find themselves dismissed from their positions. Yet, that does not provide the
satisfaction Li is seeking, so she will return.
the legal appeals process in China is much more time consuming and even more
profoundly unjust than suggested in Bovary.
For the full picture, seek out Zhao Liang’s revelatory documentary Petition. However, as an indictment of
government corruption and incompetence, is impressively bold, especially from
director Feng, who previously helmed rah-rah films like Assembly, Aftershock, and Back to 1942. If you seriously contend the Party still cares about the people
after watching Bovary, you must be
both a fool and a knave.
also features international superstar Fan Bingbing like you have never seen her
before, in more ways than one. Seriously de-glamorized, she looks like the
rustic peasant the officials so blithely assume her to be. Yet, she vividly projects
earthy strength and a naïve vulnerability. Her performance is somewhat akin to
Gong Li’s remarkable work in Zhang Yimou’s The Story of Qiu Ju, which partly bears thematic comparison to Bovary.
we have never really seen Fan (or just about anyone else) framed this way
either. Throughout all of the provincial scenes, Feng and cinematographer Luo
Pan confine our view to a perfectly circular frame of vision, evoking a sense
of rondo renaissance paintings. When the action moves to Beijing, the aspect
ratio shifts to a still restrictive square. Only the devastating denouement is
presented in something resembling standard wide-screen. It might sound like a
gimmick, but it actually works, because each shot is so carefully composed. It
also blocks out any extraneous distractions from Fan’s brutally honest and
exposed star turn.
Of course, Fan has plenty of help from a large
and convincing ensemble, most notably including Guo Tao as a potential second
chance lover, but it is her show and she commandingly appears in nearly every
scene. In a more just world, the best actress Oscar contest would be over now
and possibly best director too. Regardless, it is a stunning film, especially
coming from such a commercially popular tandem as Fan and Feng. Very highly
recommended for anyone who considers film an art form, I am not Madame Bovary opens this Friday (11/18) in New York, at
the Metrograph downtown and the AMC Empire in Midtown.
Labels: Chinese Cinema, Fan Bingbing, Feng Xiaogang