Pan Jinlian is one of very few female characters in The Water Margin, one of the four classic novels in Chinese literature. But she has a huge impact. Pan’s adulterous affair leads to the murder of her husband Wu Dalang, and her name soon became a byword for wrongdoing in Chinese culture.
Indeed, her reputation is so notorious that in her supposed hometown of Qinghe there has been no intermarriage between the Pan and Wu families for centuries.
That’s the kind of recognition that led Liu Zhenyun, a well-known writer, to title one of her books I Am Not Pan Jinlian even though it is not about the fabled character.
Feng Xiaogang, a top film director, has now adapted Liu’s novel for his latest cinematic offering. The English title of the movie is I Am Not Madame Bovary, inspired by Gustave Flaubert’s classic novel about another adulterous woman.
Instead of focusing on a bourgeois femme fatale, I Am Not Madame Bovary is a dark comedy about a peasant woman called Li Xuelian. Li and her husband stage a fake divorce so as to get a second apartment (it’s not so farfetched – hundreds of couples have been doing something similar in Shanghai this autumn; see WiC339). But the husband then remarries another woman, and worse, accuses Li (in public) of promiscuity akin to Pan Jinlian’s. Furious, she spends the next 10 years on a lawsuit that takes her from her rural home to a Beijing court. Her goal is to remarry her husband just so she can then divorce him for real.
The plot bears some similarity to The Story of Qiu Ju, a movie directed by Zhang Yimou in 1992. In that film Qiu Ju, played by Gong Li, China’s leading actress of the time, fights for justice after her husband is assaulted by the village’s Party boss. Despite being heavily pregnant, she travels to a big city to seek legal recourse.
When casting that movie, Zhang was told Gong was too urbane to play the uneducated villager. He argued she could manage the role and the film won Zhang his first Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival.
In his latest film Feng is looking for similar acclaim and the movie stars an almost unrecognisable Fan Bingbing in her least glamorous role to date (although Chinese media still reckons Fan looks too delicate to be a rough-and-ready peasant woman).
Madame Bovary reunites the talented trio of Feng, Fan and novelist Liu Zhenyun for the first time since 2003, when Liu was screenwriter for Feng’s hit Cell Phone and Fan starred.
According to Beijing News, Feng’s mainstream comedies have done well at the box office but this time he has opted for more of an arthouse approach. In an apparent attempt to “decommercialise” the movie, its debut has also been postponed to November, missing the holiday period around National Day in early October, when box office takings typically surge.
Feng has also played with the film’s aspect ratio: Madame Bovary is presented within a circular frame, which resembles the composition of traditional Chinese architecture. The visual innovation, according to Feng, is meant to create “a sense of distance and alienation”.
Not everyone is impressed with the device. “At first this self-imposed limitation raises a smile, but when it becomes clear the film is not going to open up to any sort of full screen, the gag becomes a burden,” The Hollywood Reporter suggests.
The decision to take an arty approach seems to have helped Madame Bovary get a place on the festival circuit, however, and it won top prize at the San Sebastian International Film Festival this week.
Fan also grabbed the Best Actress award in Spain.
Earlier this month the movie was shown at Toronto’s international film festival, where it won another prize.
The latter award, Beijing News posited hopefully, is sometimes a staging post for an assault on the Oscars. That would be the pinnacle of Feng’s career, although China’s directors haven’t made much impression at the Academy Awards.
Feng certainly seemed more focused on the creative process than commercial acclaim in Toronto. “There’s so much temptation in the market [because of the level of money],” he warned. “It’s making creative film-makers more like businessmen than artists. They’re only concerned about how much money they’re going to make.”
“Unfortunately even though the market is growing, the genres and subject matters are becoming more limited – it’s just entertaining, funny movies that get funded,” he lamented.
All the same, Sina Entertainment thinks it is only a matter of time before Chinese movies start to secure more Oscar statuettes. That’s despite an opinion piece at Chinaqw.com, a portal backed by the State Council’s Overseas Chinese Affairs Office, that advised Chinese filmmakers not to try too hard to impress (and “appease”) the Oscars’ judges.
Rather haughtily, the article used Jackie Chan as an example of Hollywood’s flawed tastes, citing reports that the Hong Kong actor might get an honorary Academy Award for his “extraordinary achievements” in film, even though the aging kung-fu star has never won a major gong at film festivals in Hong Kong, Taiwan or mainland China.
“Chinese filmmakers should abandon their obsession with getting an Oscar, and refocus themselves on the audience,” the article proclaimed.
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