Peering into murky heart of bureaucracy

Fan Bingbing plays a peasant who travels from village to town to city to seek justice.
Fan Bingbing plays a peasant who travels from village to town to city to seek justice.PHOTO: GOLDEN VILLAGE

REVIEW / DRAMA COMEDY

I AM NOT MADAME BOVARY (PG13)

128 minutes/Opens tomorrow/3/5 stars

The story: Li Xuelian (Fan Bingbing) goes to court over a fake divorce that turned real. The ruling goes against her and so she keeps escalating the case up the chain, aggravating officials every step of the way. She gets another grievance when her ex-husband calls her Pan Jinlian, the infamous adulterer of lore. Only her old classmate Zhao Datou (Guo Tao), who has always had a crush on Xuelian, is willing to help her. Based on the 2012 Chinese novel of the same name (literally, I Am Not Pan Jinlian) by Liu Zhenyun.

The shadow of another movie looms large over this one: Zhang Yimou's The Story Of Qiu Ju (1992), where Gong Li played a peasant woman from rural China who travels from village to town to city to seek justice.

So, too, does Fan's Xuelian doggedly pursue justice, without qualms haranguing any and every official she meets to get her case heard.

The international red carpet regular also goes the de-glamorising routine, speaking with a rural/provin- cial accent and going from va-va-voom to looking as plain and dowdy as a worn rug.

Unfortunately, the strong sense of deja vu does her no favours. In a diva-to-diva face-off, Gong comes across as the stronger actress.

Still, Fan is competent enough that she has nabbed a Golden Horse nomination for Best Actress, which is among the five prizes the film is up for later this month at the event. I Am Not Madame Bovary is also competing for Best Feature Film and Best Director for film-maker Feng Xiaogang.

The black comedy about incompetent government contains flashes of sly humour. Sycophants and fools abound, their names exposing them for what they are: court employee Jia Congming's moniker is a homonym for "fake cleverness" in Mandarin, for example.

Feng plays with the framing of the film, going from a circular frame to a rectangular one and then to the more familiar widescreen format. Some of the scenes composed for the circular frame are as pretty as a picture, recalling traditional Chinese painting. Or it could be a reflection of the loop that Xuelian is stuck in, fighting on year after year to no avail.

At the same time, it also reminds one of a peephole, one that peers into the murky heart of Chinese bureaucracy.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 16, 2016, with the headline 'Peering into murky heart of bureaucracy'. Print Edition | Subscribe