How many stunning images can fit into a perfect circle? Feng Xiaogang’s I Am Not Madame Bovary sets up that challenge. Except for two brief square-shaped scenes and a widescreen epilogue at the end, nearly two hours and 8 minutes of the film take place inside a tight round frame. Deep, rich, multilayered shots in olive, gray, and autumnal shades offer dramatic landscapes, cramped interiors, and contrasts between the old and the new China—an impressive formalist feat for a work where half the aspect ratio is missing. Unfortunately, a circle also signifies a hole, and emptiness ultimately lies at the heart of this dogged, interminable satire of one woman’s quest for vindication in the face of bureaucratic scheming and incompetence
Lian (Chinese megastar Fan Bingbing) is a woman on a mission. The provincial wife engineered a bogus divorce with her husband in order to score an apartment under housing allocation rules. He, however, broke the terms of their agreement and took up with another woman. Now she wants the divorce declared invalid so the couple can repeat the process, this time to get a real divorce and clear her name. Sounds confusing? It is.
The distraught Lian meets privately with a cool-cat judge in the case, trying to curry favor and pull strings through distant family ties, but her suit is thrown out of court. When she tries to reason with her husband, he rebuffs her entreaties with cold disdain in public. From then on Lian carries signs, steps into the path of motorcades, and endlessly petitions officials to seek redress. Her case—and rumors surrounding it—reaches beyond local jurisdictions to the upper courts, finally attracting the attention of officials in Beijing and becoming a political cause célèbre.
Here Madame Bovary’s humor develops a sly punch at an immaculately choreographed party congress, where the worried party chief invokes Lian’s snowballing case as an admonition to the party and the nation. “This is how a sesame seed becomes a watermelon!” he thunders, holding up her drawn-out lawsuit as a populist cry for help—and a pretext to chastise underlings for indifference to the little people. Such negligence, he warns, could endanger the party’s hold on power and even make the country lose face on the world stage. Haven’t the party delegates heard of social media?
This scene may be the high point, as Lian and her vendetta roll along like a lost ball in tall weeds. Wrangling between bureaucrats—all men—over how the endless legal battle should be finessed breaks out and lasts for more than a decade. Cheats, palm-greasers, and ass-coverers embroil themselves in elaborate plots against Lian and each other. Shot mostly in medium and wide shots with nary a close-up in sight, actress Bingbing is given a fitful romance to work with and a few cathartic scenes where she screams and cries, but we see little of her character’s interior life.
In her quest, Lian is no Norma Rae or even Mother Courage. Her crusade takes place only on behalf of herself and really looks rather petty on the face of it. The story’s unruffled, episodic plodding makes it hard to tell if the movie is sending up incompetent state functionaries, useless lawsuits, or the way obsessively pursued unfounded lawsuits become an end in themselves. As one beleaguered government flunky, trying to dissuade the hell-bent Lian, puts it, “With no skin, what keeps the fur on?”
I Am Not Madame Bovary ends on a wistful note that arrives completely out of the blue. What we finally find out in the last moments might have caused us to be more invested in the heroine’s predicament earlier, as well as added some feminist context to the story. As it is, Liu’s journey has been a beautifully filmed but arduous and circular Long March.