Movie Review – I Am Not Madame Bovary

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EXPECTATIONS: A comedy/drama that suffers from China censorship with a great performance from Fan Bingbing.

REVIEW: Feng Xiaogang is one of the most popular directors in all of China, but unlike other directors like Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige, his work is not as well-known overseas. Also unlike the directors mentioned, he was not trained at the prestigious Beijing Film Academy, making him a self-taught auteur.

His films are well-known for their comedic timing, skilled storytelling as well as its satirical touch, which has resulted in great films like Cell Phone, a film that made fun of male statuses, technology obsession as well as having astute observations of the middle-class in China; as well as being commercial successes that worked well with audiences like the rom-com films If You Are The One and its sequel, the war film, Assembly and the disaster film/melodrama Aftershock.

In his latest film, he reunites with his collaborators from Cell Phone, superstar actress Fan Bingbing and author/screenwriter Liu Zhenyun for the comedy/drama, I Am Not Madame Bovary, based on a novel by the latter. Will the film be just as good and fruitful as their previous collaboration?

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Fan Bingbing stars as Li Xuelian, a village woman, who is scorned by her ex-husband Qin Yuhe (Li Zonghan) after being swindled into a divorce. She attempts to sue him but after a ruling is made against her in the divorce proceedings (resulting in a hilarious courtroom scene), she decides to seek justice from people who are higher up in the Chinese legal system.

But when she is ignored, rebuffed and pushed away by the infinite government officials that she seeks help from, she begins an annual trip of demanding reparations to Beijing not only in order to prove that her divorce was a complete sham but also in order to redeem her reputation, and most importantly to sue the Chinese officials who failed her.

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For those who have just seen the screenshots and the trailer, you’re probably wondering, does the entire film look like we are peering through a telescope? For the majority of it, it is true. In a recent interview, Feng Xiaogang said that in his current age, he wanted to branch out from his commercial works and into more art-house fare. And seeing his newest film, it’s not hard to see the results.

The circular image can be a bit off-putting at first, but for those accustomed to Chinese art works and literature, it makes sense, visually. It also helps that the compositions and cinematography by Luo Pan looks fantastic, like peering at paintings.

The aspect ratio also changes from the circular image to the 1:1 ratio (simulating an open scroll) during the Beijing scenes until the end of the film, which is the 2.35:1 widescreen image. The reasons for the change in ratios is not just for visual purposes, but it lends a point for symbolism i.e. the circular image being a Chinese symbol for feminism while the ending ratio symbolizes the revelation that Xuelian confesses.

The beautiful cinematography is also an amusing contrast to the frankly ridiculous story, which had me belly-laughing. The same goes for the musical score by Wei Du, which adopts a thrilling and intensive vibe that brought a huge smile on my face.

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Feng still has his trademark comedy chops in check like in Cell Phone and his last film, the incredibly esoteric Personal Tailor, and it pays off with dark humour, hard-hitting satire and even some physical comedy. Feng makes sure that every actor plays their role straight-faced without a sense of irony nor self-awareness, and it pays off brilliantly.

But unlike the actors, Feng knows how ridiculous the story is and plays it more like a fable, rather than something factual. And like his previous film Personal Tailor, the Chinese government isn’t seen and portrayed in an admirable light, leading to some very funny blaming games. Between this, Shin Godzilla and the recent election, bureaucracy has turned into a running joke.

Also contributing to the film is Fan Bingbing. In my opinion, she is one of the most underrated actresses out there. Mainly seen as nothing more than a pretty face, she clearly has done great work in her career, like her dramatic turns in her collaborations with director Li Yu or her comedic turns in films by director Eva Jin. Reuniting with director Feng Xiaogang, she gives one of her best performances in her career.

Taking away her glamourous beauty away and the lack of close-up shots in the film, she really inhabits the look of a villager. Ferocious, headstrong and not willing to back away from a fight, Fan pulls off her dramatic scenes with aplomb while also nailing the deadpan tone of the film; displaying her comedic chops. The rest of the all-male supporting cast do fine with their roles, especially Guo Tao as Xuelian’s childhood friend, but Fan is a true force of nature in the role.

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Although I enjoyed the film overall aesthetically and humourously, there are some caveats that some will take issue with. The humour of the film is not of the politically correct kind which could irk some; one scene in particular involves rape and another one involves the act of suicide. And the second act does end up in a bit of a lull, and that is mainly because Fan is not on-screen for a certain amount of time, but the pacing overall is fine, though the running time is a bit stretched out.

As for the ending, it can be polarizing to some. While it does earn its dramatic peak and provides much-needed backstory and motivation for the main character, it does make you question what you just saw and it might evoke a sense of guilt; something that one might not want once they leave the theater.

But overall, I Am Not Madame Bovary was a funny, charming, satirical, feminist tale that shows both director Feng Xiaogang and actress Fan Bingbing at their best. How this film was NOT considered as a submission for the Foreign Language Film Oscar is baffling beyond belief.

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Quickie Review

PROS

Dry, satirical and hilarious humour, dealing with themes like infidelity, murder, rape, government bureaucracy

Beautifully surreal cinematography

Fantastic technical values enhance the humour of the ridiculous story

Fan’s fantastic performance as Pan Jinlian Li Xuelian

CONS

The ending and humour might polarize some

A slight lull in the second act

Slightly overlong running time

SCORE: 8/10

Cast: Fan Bingbing, Guo Tao, Da Peng, Yin Yuanzhang, Feng Enhe, Liu Xin, Zhao Yi, Zhao Lixin, Jiang Yongbo, Liu Hua, Li Zonghan, Huang Jianxin, Gao Ming, Yu Hewei, Zhang Jiayi, Tian Xiaojie, Zhang Yi  
Director: Feng Xiaogang
Screenwriters: Liu Zhenyun, based on her novel “I Did Not Kill My Husband”

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