I Am Not Madame Bovary Review
The title of Feng Xiaogang's black comedy, I Am Not Madame Bovary, is in fact not a retelling of Gustave Flaubert’s famous work, but instead an adaptation of Zhenyun Liu’s novel, I Did Not Kill My Husband, with the writer also responsible for the screenplay. The Madame Bovary character reference is slightly misleading, as it was deemed she bore the closest resemblance to Pan Jinlain, a fictional 17th Century character, whose relevance to the story is explained at the very beginning.
If that all sounds rather convoluted, being aware of the wider context does prove helpful, in a film occasionally bogged down with too much detail. The story isn’t about a cheating, murderous wife such as Jinlain, but instead one that looks at the controlling nature of the Chinese government and the sexist attitudes that remain so prevalent. Xiaogang approaches these serious topics with a light comedic tone, highlighting the ridiculousness of the decision making found at both local and central government level, seen through the eyes of a woman determined to regain control of her life.
The ‘Jinlain’ label is thrown at Li Xuelian (Fan Bingbing) by her husband in the wake of their divorce, a tag she is unwilling to accept. Li insists she was tricked into a ‘fake divorce’ by her ex, Qin (Zonghan Li), who reneged on their deal to remarry once their false separation had secured a new apartment for them both. Instead, Qin moved on to live with another woman, leaving Li to chase down local officials in attempt to have the marriage officially annulled. No-one wants to take her case seriously but such is her persistence that the provincial judge, Chief Justice, Mayor and Governor all eventually become involved, before the spiralling drama catches the attention of senior central Government officials.
Staged across a ten year period, the men become increasingly fearful of Li and her yearly lawsuit. Even once she is exhausted and prepared to end her campaign, they refuse to believe she is about to relent, so round they go again, as Li readies herself to sue once more. Xiaogang takes time to concentrate on the slow turning wheels of the government's administration who talk a good game on behalf of ‘the people,’ without ever backing it up through real action. Bold speeches are made about a system rife with corruption and dishonesty, while behind the scenes it remains an accepted part of political life.
By retaining the sort of pace you would expect from a novel, the extensive two and a half hour runtime certainly enhances that feeling. What remains unanswered is why everyone is so fearful of Li, given she has been waging a legal war for nigh on a decade, with little or no success. Fan Bingbing is relied on to carry much of the story, a task she handles superbly well, forging a character that is both sincere and formidable. For much of the time she is centred within a circular frame, while Xiaogang switches between three aspect ratios to reflect the evolution of the narrative, each shot painted with exquisite detail. Despite needing a little trimming and a more concise story, it does its job well by combining the light tone with thoughtful themes that feel just as relevant in this part of the world, as they do back in the directors native country.