- 26 May 17
Satire of Chinese bureaucracy is slyly funny but self-indulgent
A satire of Chinese bureaucracy and an homage to traditional Chinese painting? It’s a unique Venn diagram to be sure. Ostensibly a story about a woman abandoned by her husband, director Xiagong Feng’s sly sense of humour transforms I Am Not Madame Bovary into a David and Goliath tale examining the ridiculous and harmful intricacies of an oppressive system.
Fan Bingbing is completely deglammed for her role as café proprietor Lian, who hatches a plan with her husband, Qin (Li Zonghan). Their dream apartment is reserved by the government for single people, and so the couple plot a fake divorce in order to secure it. Genius, right? Wrong. As soon as the divorce goes through, Qin reneges on the idea and shacks up with another woman, leaving Lin angry, alone and hellbent on justice. She takes her case to court, demanding that she can remarry Qin just to divorce him for real.
Screenwriter Liu Zhenyun (who worked with both Feng and Bingbing on the comedy Cell Phone) has an ear for the absurd and the deadpan, and Lian’s frustrating meetings with dismissive, incompetent and egotistical legislators and politicians are filled with brilliantly observed social critique.
However, as the second half of the film essentially repeats the action, only years later, the film’s pace becomes sluggish, and its impact rapidly deflates. The artful charm of Feng’s stylistic choices also begin to feel limiting. The director shoots Lian’s world through a round, telescopic frame that highlights both the quaint beauty of Lian’s life but also the unseen forces around it. Though Feng occasionally switches to a wider ratio, watching the overlong film through such a lens can feel claustrophobic, laboured and self-serving; exactly the mindset that the film is railing against.