Movie Review: China’s “I Am Not Madame Bovary” loses something in translation

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If the future of cinema is Chinese, as the single party state emerges as the world’s top box office market, then perhaps the time is right for more Chinese hits — films built for domestic consumption — to enjoy international release.

Or perhaps not.

Whatever the charms of “I Am Not Madame Bovary,” the latest from “The Chinese Spielberg,” this two hours-and-counting satire of Chinese bureaucracy, mores and customs does more to point out how vast the gulf in storytelling styles between East and West. As if decades of exported 3 hour Bollywood pictures hadn’t made that point.

“Bovary” has absolutely nothing to do with Flaubert’s famous novel. The title is a play upon Chinese slang for a faithless, philandering woman whose cheating leads to murder. She’s called Pan Jinlian in Chinese, and that label is something Lian (Fan Bingbing) will not tolerate.

She journeys far from her rural province seeking justice, from first a judge, then a mayor and on up through the Chinese system, for a divorce she says was “fake.”

Her story — that she and her then husband, Qin ( Li Zonghan) got divorced to win a coveted apartment where rules were in place that kept married couples out, that after the “fake” divorce her feckless truck driver husband went off and married someone else.

Now, she wants him in court. She wants his admission of what they did, and he did afterwards. She wants the satisfaction of annulling the first divorce so that she can divorce him again.

“If you can’t help me,” she shouts at the first judge she faces (in Mandarin, with English subtitles), “I’ll return home right now and kill him!”

When that first court denies her appeal, she goes further and further up the bureaucracy, blocking traffic with “Injustice” signs, harassing cowardly “suits” at every step of the way.

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This fool’s errand of revenge eats her up, and devours ten years of her life.  Every year’s campaign climaxes at the NPC — the National People’s Congress, in Beijing.

But if her quest makes Lian a little crazy, it drives the People’s Republicans bonkers. Protest? Claims of “Injustice”? In this paradise of Marxist Capitalism?

As her rage grows, Lian literally sharpens her machete and seeks an accomplice, with the promise of sexual favors. The butcher Datou (Guo Tao) takes her growing enemies list as too daunting, but longs to “save her” from this mania for justice in an injustice culture. He has a (not very) funny way of showing that.

Whatever her intent, Lian’s pursuit makes her infamous, the subject of gossip, and more of a “fallen woman” with each passing year.

Director Feng Xiaogang hasn’t had much of his work seen outside of China, and “I Am Not Madame Bovary” suggests some reasons. At festivals (where the film occasionally took a prize), he has talked of the artistic ambition of the piece. And that’s laughable.

His big idea — messing around with the shape of the frame, silent film style. Lian’s limited world and influence is represented by early scenes in a small, circular frame. That frame turns square, or close to “Academy Aspect Ratio” as the movie progresses, finally widening into Cinemascope as Lian becomes someone the authorities fear so much that they visit her and try to dissuade her from further protests.

Primitive? “Mickey Mouse” is more like it.

The sly-est take-aways from the movie might not register to local Chinese audiences. Lian can’t travel by bus without showing ID to a cop who checks every passenger before departure. The legal system shown here lacks advocates, merely “judges.” The country’s world revolves around a “Congress,” not shown, which rubber stamps the edicts of whatever cabal is in power. It’s all in the name of “order,” something every Chinese director and actor I’ve ever interviewed stresses is a paramount concern in a nation-state of billions.

The acting is rarely broad and Fan Bingbing delivers a credible haplessness in Lian.

But the occasional moments of broader comedy translate well-enough. Lian’s more and more compromised requests of whoever might be her accomplice — “Just hold him down for me” while she stabs her ex-husband — is funny.

But truthfully, “Not Madame Bovary” is not a lot of things — not that funny, or that interesting, for starters. Perhaps satire or comedy are not “China’s Spielberg’s” thing.

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MPAA Rating: Unrated, with some nudity, violence (an off-camera rape).

Cast: Fan Bingbing, Guo Tao, Da Peng, Zhang Jiayi, Yu Hewei, Yin Yuanzhang, Feng Enhe, Lin Xin, Zhao Yi

Credits:Directed by Feng Xiaogang, script by Liu Zhenyun, based on her novel “I Did Not Kill My Husband.”. A  Well Go USA release.

Running time: 2:09

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