Back in 1992, China’s most renowned director (internationally, at least) and its most famous actress (ditto) teamed up to make an offbeat portrait of maniacal tenacity. The Story Of Qiu Ju—it was the fifth consecutive collaboration between Zhang Yimou and Gong Li—stars Gong as a hugely pregnant peasant who stubbornly works her way up the country’s justice system, rung by rung, seeking redress for her husband, who got kicked in the nuts by their village chieftain. Doesn’t sound like a potential franchise, but here, nonetheless, comes I Am Not Madame Bovary, a remarkably similar one-woman-vs.-the-system tale helmed by China’s most commercially successful director, Feng Xiaogang (Aftershock, Assembly), and starring its most popular actress, Fan Bingbing (who’s such a megastar that the Chinese release of Iron Man 3 included extra scenes in which she appears; she also played Blink in X-Men: Days Of Future Past). Fans of both non-action Asian cinema and stifling bureaucratic nightmares, your long wait is finally over.
Judging from the subtitles, I Am Not Madame Bovary has nothing to do with Flaubert—someone just decided that character works as a Western-lit equivalent of Pan Jinlian, the duplicitous protagonist of a renowned 17th-century Chinese novel. Li Xuelian (Fan) doesn’t take kindly to being compared to Pan/Bovary by her ex-husband (Li Zonghan), from whom she’s recently divorced. Lian, as she’s known, insists that this was actually a “fake” divorce, intended solely to gain them access to a particular apartment; they’d agreed to remarry after they moved in. Her ex, however, has taken up with another woman, and Li proceeds to systematically petition every official she can locate in an effort to have the divorce invalidated, so that she can really divorce him. As every official attempts to point out, this makes zero sense, but Lian is so determined that she manages to get a bunch of people fired, and is still showing up at an annual government conference a decade later, serving up lawsuits. Eventually, the state gets so concerned that more heads will roll that she’s even put under armed guard at her house, to no avail.
Despite running nearly two-and-a-half hours, I Am Not Madame Bovary never really explains why all of the movie’s men (there are very few female Chinese politicians) are terrified of Lian—after all, she’s been suing the government for 10 years, and nothing much seems to have come of it apart from the one initial mass termination. Furthermore, Feng, for some reason, shoots the entire movie in bizarrely constricted aspect ratios: Scenes in Beijing employ the Instagram square that Xavier Dolan used in Mommy, while scenes in Lian’s home province (the vast majority of the film) are circular, as if we’re seeing everything through the open door of Frodo Baggins’ house in the Shire. Presumably, this is meant to suggest styles of Chinese painting, but it’s mostly just a distraction that leaves roughly half of the frame unused. Still, there’s an absurdist energy to Lian’s campaign of intimidation-by-persistence, which pays off handsomely in an epilogue that reveals her true motivation for pursuing this seemingly bizarre cause. She may be neither Madame Bovary nor Pan Jinlian, but she’s definitely a woman, and sometimes that itself is just cause for action.