Director: Feng Xiaogang
Cast: Fan Bingbing, Guo Tao, Da Peng, Zhang Jiayi, Zhang Yi, Yu Hewei, Li Zonghan, Zhao Lixin, Fan Wei, Liu Hua, Li Chen
Runtime: 2 hrs 8 mins
Released By: Golden Village Pictures, Clover Films
Opening Day: 17 November 2016
Synopsis: Ten years ago, Li Xuelian and her husband Qin Yuhe staged a fake divorce to secure a second apartment reserved by the government for single people. Six months later, Qin remarried - as agreed - but to a different woman. Furious, Li filed a lawsuit with the County Court. But she lost the case because Judge Wang Gongdao was convinced that the divorce papers were in order. Refusing to accept the court's findings, Li appeals to the Chief Justice, the County Chief, and even the Mayor, but fails at every turn. She decides that only Qin can give her peace of mind, if he will just acknowledge that the divorce was fake. Instead, he publicly accuses her of being a "promiscuous woman" because she was not a virgin on their wedding night, an accusation that drives Li back to the courts to redeem her reputation. From county to city, she goes through one trial after another, until deciding to make her appeal in far-off Beijing. In the capital, she is looked after by Zhao Datou, a chef who had a crush on her when they were students. Braving resistance, Li makes her way to the leaders in Beijing who take action - by firing the Chief Justice, County Chief and Mayor who mishandled her case. Ten years go by and the cases of Li's divorce and her ruined reputation have not been resolved. Li has continued to travel to Beijing every year, but this time Zhao - now a widower - urges her to stay away. Li is furious when she discovers that he has been instructed by county leaders to stop her from pursuing her lawsuit. Meanwhile, Judge Wang - from the original court case ten years ago - has since been promoted to Chief Justice. He is tasked with ensuring that Li's case does not disrupt the annual National People's Congress. While Li is on her journey to Beijing, Wang has been monitoring her every step. Years later, by chance Li meets the County Chief who was fired because of her. He asks her why she fought so hard for her case. She reveals that when her husband remarried, she was pregnant. She was fighting not only for herself, but for her unborn child.
The English title of Chinese filmmaker Feng Xiaogang’s latest work is “I Am Not Madame Bovary”. Those who are familiar with European literature will know that Emma Bovary is the titular character of French writer Gustave Flaubert's debut novel – a doctor’s wife who indulges herself in adulterous affairs and luxuries to escape the emptiness of provincial life.
In Chinese, the film title translates to “I Am Not Pan Jinlian”. Those familiar with Chinese literature will know that Pan Jinlian is one of the most vicious and therefore condemned woman in Chinese history. A fictional character in the Chinese novel Jin Ping Mei and a minor character in Water Margin, she is a femme fatale who is married to a unsightly dwarf and eventually had an affair with a wealthy womaniser. This led to her killing her own husband and subsequently, her own execution by her brother in law.
For the benefit of those have no clue who Pan Jinlian is (read: film festival juries), Feng has this covered in the first few minutes of the film.
In Chinese culture, it is an insult for women to be called Pan Jinlian – no wonder Li Xuelian, the protagonist of this Huayi Brothers produced film, is determined to take her unfaithful husband to court, together with a bunch of officials who have made her life difficult.
Li (an almost unrecognisable Fan Bingbing in a very glammed down role) and her husband get divorced to cheat the Chinese system so they can get a bigger apartment. He unceremoniously compares her to Pan Jinlian after he hooks up with another woman. Infuriated, she proceeds to systematically petition every official she can locate in an effort to have the divorce invalidated, so that she can really divorce him. No thanks to the officials who feel that this doesn’t make sense and not putting any effort into helping the village woman, the drama has Li showing up at an annual government conference in Beijing– for the next decade.
Based on Liu Zhenyun’s novel of the same name, the social commentary on government bureaucracy and inefficiency shouldn’t alienate local audiences, especially public officers who would be able to testify to how most of them are just getting by their monotonous lives without upsetting the balance of the system. When your organisation’s vision is to improve the lives of countrymen, how much of it do you, as an individual, believe in?
Having helmed 2004’s A World Without Thieves, 2007’s Assembly and 2008’s If You Are The One (followed by a sequel in 2010), Feng s known as China’s most commercially successful director. This film may be his most personal work yet - it stays in a circular frame for much of the picture, changing to a narrow rectangular frame for scenes taking place in Beijing. It may put off some viewers who feel that this is a gimmicky visual approach, but you have to admit that extra effort was put into the cinematography and editing for this to work. Every shot feels like a Chinese painting, which works well for the story’s context.
Fan, who already won Best Actress at the 64th San Sebastian Film Festival and is nominated for the same accolade at the 53rd Golden Horse Awards, delivers a toned down performance, letting the men take the limelight. Acclaimed Chinese actors like Guo Tao, Da Peng, Zhang Jiayi, Zhang Yi, Yu Hewei, Li Zonghan play their roles well, and there is never a dull moment with the screenplay’s scathingly funny dialogue.
After 128 minutes, the story comes to a quiet conclusion. The narrator tells you Li’s eventual fate as the camera captures her looking forlornly into nowhere, and you feel a sudden and poignant sense of heartbreak inside you.
(Feng Xiaogang’s satire about bureaucracy and inefficiency isn’t all laughs – it pays off handsomely with a poignant, affecting and heartbreaking story of a woman who is rooted to her beliefs)
Review by John Li