Film Review: ‘I am not Madame Bovary’

As an indictment of CCP corruption and incompetence, ‘I am not Madame Bovary’ is impressively bold.

To understand Li Xuelian’s situation, you would be better served reading Kafka than Flaubert. Appealing her legal case all the way to Beijing is truly a Kafkaesque, Sisyphean process. Yet, Li persists because her honor is at stake. She was not merely betrayed by her ex-husband; he also dubbed her a Pan Jinlian, in reference to the infamous murdering adulteress of Chinese literature. The title is awkwardly Flaubertized, but the portrayal of China’s legal and political system burns like acid in Feng Xiaogang’s darkly absurdist I am not Madame Bovary, which opens Friday, Nov. 18, in New York.

Li and her husband Qin Yuhe hatched a plan to temporarily divorce, thereby entitling him to a newer, larger company apartment of his own. Of course, they were to subsequently remarry after sufficient time had passed, except Qin double-crossed her, marrying another woman instead.

Li is not sophisticated or well-educated, but she still will not take his treachery lying down. She will plead her case in court and when the provincial judges condescendingly dismiss her, she will appeal her case to the county seat and ultimately all the way to Beijing.

The legal appeals process in China is much more time consuming and even more profoundly unjust than suggested in 'Bovary.'

At each level, Li gets the brush-off, but she is a quick study. By the time she reaches Beijing, she understands the value of symbolic protest. Soon after she stops the Party chairman’s limo. Many of the bureaucrats who dismissed her case find themselves dismissed from their positions. Yet, that does not provide the satisfaction Li is seeking, so she will return.

Frankly, the legal appeals process in China is much more time consuming and even more profoundly unjust than suggested in “Bovary.” For the full picture, seek out Zhao Liang’s revelatory documentary ”Petition.”

However, as an indictment of government corruption and incompetence, “I am not Madame Bovary” is impressively bold, especially from director Feng, who previously helmed rah-rah films like ”Assembly,“ ”Aftershock," and ”Back to 1942.“ If you seriously contend the Party still cares about the people after watching ”Bovary,” you must be both a fool and a knave.

(Beijing Skywheel Entertainment Co.)
(Beijing Skywheel Entertainment Co.)

The film features international superstar Fan Bingbing like you have never seen her before, in more ways than one. Seriously de-glamorized, she looks like the rustic peasant the officials so blithely assume her to be. Yet, she vividly projects earthy strength and a naïve vulnerability. Her performance is somewhat akin to Gong Li’s remarkable work in Zhang Yimou’s ”The Story of Qiu Ju,“ which partly bears thematic comparison to ”Bovary.”

Frankly, we have never really seen Fan (or just about anyone else) framed this way either. Throughout all of the provincial scenes, Feng and cinematographer Luo Pan confine our view to a perfectly circular frame of vision, evoking a sense of rondo renaissance paintings. When the action moves to Beijing, the aspect ratio shifts to a restrictive square.

Only the devastating denouement is presented in something resembling standard wide-screen. It might sound like a gimmick, but it actually works, because each shot is so carefully composed. It also blocks out any extraneous distractions from Fan’s brutally honest and exposed star turn.

Of course, Fan has plenty of help from a large and convincing ensemble, most notably including Guo Tao as a potential second chance lover, but it is her show and she commandingly appears in nearly every scene.

In a more just world, the best actress Oscar contest would be over now and possibly best director too. Regardless, it is a stunning film, especially coming from such a commercially popular tandem as Fan and Feng.

Very highly recommended for anyone who considers film an art form, “I am not Madame Bovary” opens Nov. 18, at the Metrograph downtown and the AMC Empire in Midtown.

‘I am not Madame Bovary’ 
Director:  Feng Xiaogang
Stars: Chengpeng DongBingbing FanWei Fan
Running Time: 2 hours, 8 minutes
Opens: Nov. 18
Rated 4 stars out of 5 

Joe Bendel writes about independent film and lives in New York. To read his most recent articles, please visit

Joe Bendel writes about independent film and lives in New York City. To read his most recent articles, visit
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