According to Forbes, Fan Bingbing last year made $17 million — more than any actress on the planet not named Jennifer Lawrence, Melissa McCarthy, Scarlett Johansson or Jennifer Aniston. The Chinese megastar is likely most familiar to American audiences for a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it role in X-Men: Days of Future Past, but she’s front and center in I Am Not Madame Bovary — a movie too offbeat to brighten her star much over here, but one worthy of attention for the same reason.
Directed by Feng Xiaogang, a genre specialist who’s been described as “the Steven Spielberg of China,” the film isn’t an adaptation of Flaubert’s novel so much as an invocation of its spirit: In China, to call a woman “Madame Bovary” is to accuse her of adultery in the most damning way possible. Lian’s side of the complicated story is that she and her husband agreed to a temporary divorce as a means of gaming the system and acquiring a second apartment before remarrying; during the interim, though, he shacked up with someone new. To this charge he answers with one of his own: Lian wasn’t a virgin when they married.
Scorned, Lian sets off on what ends up being a 10-year quest to have her semi-conscious decoupling officially recognized as the farce she believes it to be. Not being well versed in China’s legal system, I can’t speak to the accuracy of her byzantine ordeal, but Feng ensures that the proceedings are entertainingly frustrating.
As inspired by Kafka as it is by Flaubert, I Am Not Madame Bovary features a revolving door of ineffectual bureaucrats stonewalling Lian. The key difference, of course, is that her aims aren’t as simple as entering a castle or finding out why she’s in court to begin with. Our embattled heroine was a willing participant in her divorce, which means it hews to the letter of the law; her after-the-fact appeal to the spirit of the law rests on shaky legal ground, morally upright as she may be.
Contrasting the drab interiors is the novel cinematography: Most of Feng’s film is seen through a circular lens barely accounting for half of the actual screen; anyone who prefers fullscreen DVDs (heathens!) because they “don’t like the black bars” is sure to find this maddening, but I was absorbed. In addition to invoking traditional Chinese painting, cinematographer Luo Pan’s lensing inspires curiosity as to what’s beyond the edges, each shot expertly framed to elide as much as it reveals.
Though much of the action is confined to courtrooms and other stiflingly official buildings, there are also picturesque backgrounds to behold through the viewfinder. We most often see Lian herself in profile, sometimes with the camera following her as she walks dejectedly from one fruitless encounter to the next. Her ordeal is stifling, but the visuals are striking. It’s like an odd storybook you’d find in the attic and have trouble putting down — the more quixotic Lian’s journey becomes, the more you want her to see it through to the bitter end.