Screen: I Am Not Madame Bovary

Confession: I don’t often go out of my way to watch Chinese movies because I generally can’t relax and enjoy them. I don’t watch them as movies; I scrutinize them as texts. Questions fill my mind as I stare at the screen: What does this film say about Chinese society? What image of the country does it convey? What about this movie made it acceptable to the censors? The movie-watching experience feels less like an escape and more like homework.

So it was with a little bit of trepidation that I entered the Michigan Theater last Friday afternoon for a screening of I Am Not Madame Bovary (我不是潘金莲 Wo bu shi Pan Jinlian), part of the Cinetopia Film Festival. I received my ticket for free from the UofM’s Lieberthal-Rogel Center for Chinese Studies, a sponsor of the screening, and can’t honestly say that I would have gone to see the movie otherwise. I had looked up a couple of reviews and found them generally underwhelming: one reviewer criticized the film’s running time (over two hours), “a pretty brutal length for a story so repetitive,” while another took issue with the convoluted storyline and self-conscious artistry of the movie, commenting that “The whole thing is a little cumbersome.” But when presented with a free ticket and feeling that a “good China scholar” would go, I did—although I took a seat at the end of a row and told myself that I was under no obligation to stay for the whole thing.

As it turned out, I thought the movie was excellent, and the two hours sped by before I even realized it. Yes, the story is convoluted, but it’s not an unthinkable one in today’s China. Village woman Li Xuelian (Fan Bingbing, looking not at all like her usual glamorous self) conspired with her husband to divorce and thus qualify for a better apartment in the county seat; after securing the apartment, the plan went, they would “reconcile” and remarry. But after the “fake” divorce, Li’s husband fell in love with another woman and married her instead of returning to Li. Seeking legal revenge, Li Xuelian petitions the local court to invalidate her fake divorce and restore her marriage, after which she can divorce her husband for real—she doesn’t want him back, but rather wants the marriage to end on her terms, not his.

That’s where the movie starts, but the divorce plotline isn’t really the film’s focus. After the local court denies Li Xuelian’s initial petition, her objective is no longer just to get the divorce overturned: she wants justice against all the officials who have wronged her, and to clear her name after her ex-husband suggests she had been unfaithful to him (a Pan Jinlian/Madame Bovary character, thus the movie’s title). She spends the next decade obsessed with this crusade, traveling to Beijing each March during the all-important “Two Sessions” meeting of China’s legislature and causing endless headaches for the government cadres and police officers tasked with keeping her in line.

Li Xuelian’s quest has its absurd elements, but its core is very true to life in contemporary China, where petitioners all over the country devote their lives to similar causes, often not seeking resolution of the initial conflict so much as wanting the central government to acknowledge the errors of lower-level officials. I Am Not Madame Bovary is pitch-perfect in its skewering of Chinese officialdom and bureaucracy: the gleaming black Audis ferrying around windbreaker-clad cadres, the stilted language and careful cadence of speeches (especially noticeable in contrast to the accented Mandarin of Li and others from the countryside), the unctuous underlings always scurrying to placate the officials above them in the chain of command. I frequently found my shoulders shaking with suppressed laughter during the officials’ scenes—though judging from the lack of reaction among my fellow audience members, some of the jokes are lost on anyone who hasn’t sat through one too many Chinese government meetings.

Chinese officialdom is also, as the movie shows, a man’s world. Li Xuelian is the film’s only female character not relegated to a background role as a tea girl or onlooker in a crowd. The male officials constantly make the mistake of dismissing her as uneducated and unimportant, an emotional and hysterical peasant woman obsessed with a nonsensical quest.

I Am Not Madame Bovary reminded me of another Chinese film that I’ve only seen once, many years ago: The Story of Qiu Ju (秋菊打官司 Qiu Ju da guan si). In that 1992 movie, Qiu Ju (Gong Li—another stunning actress playing a plain peasant woman) travels from one government office to the next seeking justice on behalf of her husband, who has been kicked in the groin by the village headman. Like Li Xuelian, Qiu Ju is repeatedly told to stop wasting her time, and also like Li she persists in her quest. And, like The Story of Qiu Ju, I Am Not Madame Bovary contrasts the stagnant village of its main character with the high-rise-strewn landscapes of the country’s cities.

That two films with roughly similar storylines can be made almost 25 years apart shows that for all its much-discussed changes in the last several decades, there are still some things that do actually stay the same in China. There is, however, one major difference between the two movies: their treatment of officials, and what is allowed to be said about them in a film that has to pass Chinese censors. As Jonathan Spence noted in his New York Review of Books review of Qiu Ju, that movie’s officials “are presented without exception as being courteous and kindly, ever receptive to a simple peasant woman’s right to complain,” and he “left the film unsure whether this group portrayal was ‘part of the joke’ to [director] Zhang Yimou, intended to be seen through at once, or whether it was a peace offering to the powers-that-be,” a pragmatic choice made with an eye toward securing approval for release.

There’s no question that I Am Not Madame Bovary’s skewering of Party cadres is intentional, and in fact it appears that satire caused a delay in getting the film past the censorship board. But for all his lampooning of inept government officials, director Feng Xiaogang finishes the film with a deferential nod to Xi Jinping’s ongoing anti-corruption campaign—a touch that, while likely necessary, felt a tad stilted.

Despite this one false note, I came out of I Am Not Madame Bovary very glad that I had decided to see it. As the fact that I’ve now written 1,100 words about the movie shows, I really can’t turn off the “What does this film tell us about China?” side of my brain when I’m watching something “for work” (wait, does that mean my popcorn and soda are tax-deductible business expenses?). But somewhat unusually, I also genuinely enjoyed it as a movie and recommend it highly. Even if you aren’t reduced to giggles upon hearing a Chinese Communist Party cadre un-ironically intone the importance of “seeking truth from facts,” there’s plenty to like in this film.

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