The World of Chinese - - Editor's Letter - - DAVID DAW­SON

This po­lar­iz­ing film has crit­ics scratch­ing their heads and judges shak­ing their fin­gers. But is it re­ally as con­tro­ver­sial as the fuss in­di­cates? Ex­plore the themes of the film and de­cide for your­self whether or not it lives up to the hype.

The vil­lains in Feng Xiao­gang’s lat­est film, I Am Not Madame Bo­vary, are not malev­o­lent; their worst trait is cow­ardice mixed with fawn­ing stu­pid­ity. None dare con­tra­dict of­fi­cials higher up on the food chain and this fear drives them to in­ter­fere even when they are told it’s un­nec­es­sary.

As this in­se­cu­rity spreads like a virus, so too does chaos, thus fu­elling the plot, which starts with a mi­nor di­vorce case and snow­balls. Dozens of of­fi­cials (and no doubt hun­dreds off-screen) are caught in its web.

The film’s ti­tle is a ref­er­ence to an an­cient Chi­nese novel, but some­thing is lost in the English trans­la­tion. There is no ref­er­ence to Gus­tave Flaubert’s Madame Bo­vary here; In Chi­nese, the ti­tle is “I am not Pan Jin­lian.” An ap­prox­i­mate his­tor­i­cal char­ac­ter was cho­sen for the English trans­la­tion, Pan Jin­lian be­ing an fic­tional adul­ter­ess whose very name is a by­word for promis­cu­ity and de­ceit, and Emma Bo­vary is, as they say, chabuduo (差不多, close enough).

The pro­tag­o­nist of the film, Li Xuelian (played by Fan Bing­bing, who looks much less glam­orous than usual) is out­raged that her hus­band vi­o­lated a di­vorce agree­ment. The cou­ple was sup­posed to get di­vorced in or­der to get an ex­tra apart­ment and some work ben­e­fits (em­ploy­ees in China oc­ca­sion­ally re­ceive an apart­ment from em­ploy­ers, but just one per mar­ried cou­ple), but once the “fake” di­vorce was fi­nal­ized, he de­cided that it was real. With the di­vorce done and dusted, there was no­body she could turn to, so she starts mov­ing


up the chain of au­thor­ity in pur­suit of jus­tice. When her ex-hus­band ac­cuses her of be­ing Pan Jin­lian, her out­rage is kicked up sev­eral notches, prompt­ing her to ut­ter the ti­tle words, “I am not Pan Jin­lian!”

Li is a dif­fi­cult char­ac­ter to empathize with, as much of the film’s ac­tion is de­rived from her stub­born­ness. A fi­nal rev­e­la­tion goes a long way to­ward hu­man­iz­ing her, but she still re­mains a fig­ure who de­mands un­der­stand­ing for her own mis­for­tunes while turn­ing a blind eye to the suf­fer­ing she in­flicts upon others. This isn’t nec­es­sar­ily a stum­bling block for the film. While it ex­co­ri­ates the of­fi­cials who spend more time mouthing plat­i­tudes than they do help­ing the peo­ple, a key theme is also the mag­ni­tude of the task they face. At what point is it rea­son­able for them to sim­ply say “I can’t help you?” And to what ex­tent will the sys­tem let them do so?

The film­mak­ers em­ploy some in­ter­est­ing tech­niques; scenes in Li’s back­wa­ter home­town are seen though a black circle as if look­ing through a te­le­scope.then, when she makes her way to the big city, this gives way to the full screen, demon­strat­ing how small and closed off her world re­ally was. As her vis­tas are opened up, so too are those of the view­ers, quite lit­er­ally.

In the end, the film high­lights the un­rea­son­able­ness of both sides; Li’s un­re­al­is­tic ex­pec­ta­tions are con­trasted against the well-mean­ing but in­com­pe­tent and in­ter­fer­ing of­fi­cials. Au­di­ence mem­bers are left to de­cide whom they sym­pa­thize with more. While this may have been a nec­es­sary con­trast for the film to get ap­proved and be­come the suc­cess that it has, it’s also what pre­vents the movie from tak­ing any pow­er­ful stand one way or the other, or re­ally de­liv­er­ing any strong mes­sages with im­pact. The film’s de­noue­ment of­fers some cathar­sis as to Li’s mo­ti­va­tions, but lit­tle else by way of clo­sure.

Li Xuelian doggedly pur­sues jus­tice through­out the film

Played by Fan Bing­bing, Li Xuelian makes it all the way to Bei­jing

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