To 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.
Li 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 Beijing.
At 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.
Frankly, 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.
It 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.
Frankly, 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.