Small Things and Big Things: Feng Xiaogang’s I Am Not Madame Bovary

By Shelly Kraicer 

How can a filmmaker like Feng Xiaogang exist in China? His films somehow manage to be both widely popular and ideologically unconventional. For many years—until the onset of the current “wild east” phenomenon, in which a stream of record-breaking blockbusters seems regularly to be emerging from China’s hyped-up movie-production machine—Feng has consistently been one of the top box-office earners. At the same time, his films accomplish interesting cultural work, as they speak in a popular social voice, one pitched with a unique mixture of sarcasm and cynicism. His latest, I Am Not Madame Bovary, whose revised version screened at the Berlinale’s Critics’ Week, puts both poles of Feng’s cinema in heightened relief.

The Beijing-born Feng’s 16 features have established him as China’s premier homegrown comedy blockbuster craftsman. The Feng Xiaogang “brand” is the holiday hesuipian or New Year’s film, a genre he practically invented in mainland China in 1998 with Be There or Be Square (though there are Hong Kong cinema industry precedents): a star-packed, family-friendly comedy that, released around Chinese Lunar New Year, made huge box-office success an aspiration for the Chinese cinema industry. Feng usually doesn’t make fluff (although his two Shu Qi vehicles, If You Are the One I and II, from 2008 and 2010, come close). His hesuipian are social comedies with Beijing cultural characteristics, something akin to comedies of manners, but much less polite, with a dark, satiric, stiletto-sharp edge. Feng’s “northern” (i.e., Beijing-centric) sensibility has always been what makes his films appealing to filmgoers in the capital and somewhat less popular in the softer-edged, more discreetly mannered south of China.

For Mandarin speakers, Feng and his writers (through his usual leading man, the great film comedian Ge You) create dialogue that reflects and sometimes enriches a kind of cantankerously sarcastic, knowingly jaded Beijing vernacular humour. It’s an attitude cultivated by the millions of people who live in, or near, the capital: power is nearby, an ever-present reality looming over their lives. Beijingers characteristically acknowledge this with a knowing, bleak, nihilistic vein of humour that acknowledges that while society is not all it should be, there’s not much they can do about it. This is done in Feng’s movies (and in Beijing daily life) with a kind of darkly virtuosic play with the gaps between words and meanings in public language that they encode. Feng’s acid-tongued jokes signal that the protagonists know only certain words can be spoken, but that beneath them are unspeakable realities best left unarticulated. True masters of this Feng-speak get to have it both ways (a strategy that in China’s current political/social climate comes off as both cynical and wise): you signal through your use of language that you know you’re speaking jargon and ideological propaganda on the one hand, but at the same time you imply an active independent intelligence that flags you really do know better.

This is not a verbal mode particular to post-1949, Communist Party-led China. Beijing became the capital of China in the 13th century during the Yuan dynasty, and from Imperial times Beijingers have been developing this unique mode of speech that is oddly balanced between respect, fear, contempt, and world-weariness. That is the tone that Feng’s films have captured and developed—and propagated back into Beijing verbal culture, where lines of his dialogue are adopted and circulated into local conversation—in standout hits including Big Shot’s Funeral (2002), Cell Phone (2003), and A World Without Thieves (2004). More recently Feng has been experimenting with more straightforward cinema modes: period palace intrigue (The Banquet, 2006); wartime patriotic epic (The Assembly, 2007); romantic comedy (If You Are the One); and national historical epic (Aftershock, 2010 and Back to 1942, 2012).

I Am Not Madame Bovary, released in China last November after winning San Sebastián’s Golden Shell, follows certain practices that Feng’s domestic audience expects, but more important is how it breaks new ground. The film presents itself as an absurdist parable, a fable of contemporary Chinese rural life, and as a starring vehicle for China’s dominant movie star, Fan Bingbing. It’s quite a stretch for the glamorous, saucer-eyed Fan: Li Xuelian (referred to as Lian in the English subtitles) is a scrappy, bull-headed rural Jiangxi restaurateur. Jiangxi is one of China’s least-developed inland provinces, and the prevalence of fake Jiangxi accents in the film might signify something like faux-Appalachian does for American films: these rural folk are removed from sophisticated urban modernity, and their perceived “simplicity” and naïveté is something urban audiences will laugh at, from an initial sense of cultural/moral superiority. But as the fable’s moral reversals become clearer, they will learn to respect them.

Lian has sought and received a sham divorce from her husband Qin Yuhe so that they can obtain a second apartment. But Qin has taken advantage of the situation to find another wife, infuriating Lian. So she approaches her very distant relative Judge Wang Gongdao to demand that he annul the sham divorce, so she can remarry Qin and then immediately divorce him, this time for real.  When Judge Wang finds the divorce to have been granted according to correct procedures, Lian refuses to accept his judgment and accosts a higher official, county Chief Justice Xun. Failing to obtain satisfaction, she tracks down the car of County Chief Shi and kneels in front of it, but he weasels out of dealing with her. Subordinates fail to subdue Lian, and when she confronts Mayor Cai (in China, counties are subordinate to cities), she is detained by Cai’s local police force. This is administrative detention, short term, without trial, after which she seems temporarily cowed. But her resentment of her husband turns manic after he accuses her of having had sex before their marriage. He invokes the traditional Confucian-patriarchal moral code and brands her, publicly, a “Pan Jinlian”—a morally debased, sexually perverse woman. Pan Jinlian is a famous symbol of woman as dangerous, destabilizing sexual predator: the main character of the late political/erotic Ming dynasty novel The Plum in the Golden Vase, Pan Jinlian poisoned her husband and cavorted, scandalously and with prodigious technique, with various illicit lovers. Bovary’s Chinese title, Wo bu shi Pan Jinlian (I Am Not Pan Jinlian), derives from Lian’s furious refusal to accept this insult, and her adoption of its refutation as her monomaniacal life’s mission. (The English title is an understandable attempt to find a Western equivalent, but the Flaubert reference seems awkward at best.)

Lian is a character out of Gong Li’s old repertoire: an indefatigable fighter for justice who launches herself against authority. And indeed I Am Not Madame Bovary has been compared to Zhang Yimou’s The Story of Qiu Ju (1992), in which Gong Li’s peasant woman does just that. Zhang’s film seems to provide the template for the first act of Feng’s movie, as Lian moves up the hierarchy of rural authorities pleading her case for justice. Both films present onscreen titles that indicate the protagonist’s moves from peripheral, low-level local cadres towards the central authorities.

The film follows Lian to Beijing, and the audience (though not Lian) gets to hear an unspecified, very high-up Communist Party official berate the governor of Lian’s province for allowing this “piddling” dispute to fester. This rather implausibly incensed high official then summarily fires all the officials Lian has complained to. Feng stages this all at a grand Party meeting occurring during the annual lianghui, the formally important National People’s Congress sessions in the capital, complete with perfectly pitched formality, empty Party verbiage, and obsequious underlings. This is indeed how Communist Party officials talk and behave. Feng is doing a rather extraordinary high-wire act, presenting government rituals as spectacle, formally somewhat admirable on the surface, while insinuating an undertone, unmistakable but conveniently deniable, of precision-engineered sotto voce ridicule.

But there is a second act, as the narrator—Feng Xiaogang himself—explains. He had introduced Act I as “ten years ago,” so this presumably positions Act II in the present. Lian—Fan Bingbing, now with short hair, almost unrecognizably bad skin, and a stocky figure—has been petitioning the capital for ten years, but now seems to be ready to give up. But the ill-advised intervention of a new set of local officials enrages her again. She’s kept under guard, but slips away with her would-be lover, former classmate chef Zhang Datou (prominent comic actor Gu Tao). The authorities, bungling as ever, finally manage to catch up with Lian. She is last seen setting out to hang herself in an orchard on Beijing’s outskirts, where a farmer (the famous comedian Fan Wei) persuades her not to abandon her suicidal intentions, but rather merely to move over to a neighbouring field. We’re not sure if she goes through with her suicide: Feng completes the film with a formal voiceover, and we hear Lian laughing. This is, at least, how the film originally ended. The current version adds a brightly lit epilogue, presumably in response to demands of the China Film Bureau, which explicitly shows Lian surviving, years later, working in a restaurant across from the main Beijing Railway Station. Though the epilogue comes from Liu Zhenyun’s novel on which the film is based, and was filmed in case it might prove necessary to add later, I prefer to consider the open-ended original conclusion as the director’s preference.

That’s a lot of plot summary: I’ll use it to attempt to articulate the film’s play with content, implication, and form. Bovary’s premise—that Lian wants to be un-divorced so that she can remarry so that she can then redivorce—is plainly nonsensical, and functions as an empty signifier. Its meaning lies precisely in its not making sense. If Lian’s goal is nullified, logically, then where does that leave us? Formally, an empty narrative goal impels us to shift our search for meaning from the specific content to the general structure of the narrative so we can perhaps infer or supply a less nonsensical meaning. There are plenty of clues that point to Lian being a petitioner: the word is even used at one point by the officials seemingly hamstrung by her persistence. A petitioner in China has a very specific meaning. A holdover from the Imperial system, petitioning is a way for a subject (or citizen) directly to address the central government when she is subject to an injustice perpetrated by local authorities. Local authorities in present-day China try to obstruct access to the central Party Petition Office in Beijing, since complaints that reach that office are recorded (if rarely acted upon), bring embarrassment to, and harm the careers of the responsible officials. Hence the multiple ways that local officials, police, and government-hired goons try to obstruct petitioners: by cajoling them, bribing them, detaining them, putting them under house arrest, blocking their movements to Beijing, or harassing them once they manage to reach the capital. Lian suffers versions of all of these techniques. Her ostensible complaint is prima facie absurd, but her dealings with all the levels of official power are absolutely real.

Daring Chinese documentary filmmakers such as Zhao Liang, Zhang Zanbo, and Ma Li have described the plight of petitioners in films like Petition (2009), Interceptor from My Home Town (2011), and Born in Beijing (2012). These independent films show petitioners who have had homes stolen, suffered violent abuse, and have been unjustly imprisoned, yet still appeal for justice in Beijing with maddening zeal but complete futility. But these are all tizhiwai (outside of the system) and hence cannot be openly shown in China. Feng Xiaogang takes this phenomenon and substitutes a patently silly story for real grievances, while keeping the formal rituals of complaint invariant. The officials respond as if they do indeed know the stakes: late in Bovary, they complain in a gilded hallway that although the Lian affair looks like a “small thing,” there are direct links between “small things” and “big things.” They also note that Lian’s affair might be solved, but if systemic problems aren’t addressed, there will be other Li Xuelians. This conversation was in fact much more pointed (more implicitly critical of the system) in the original version, but it was dubbed out for something a bit safer in the Film Bureau-approved festival and release version.

It’s not necessary to insist on reading Bovary as a lightly disguised critique of China’s petitioner system. The film’s destabilizing power comes from its texture, its discourse, and its accumulation of detail. Feng’s laser-sharp analysis of the relationships between citizens and government power are all there, in the text (rather than the subtext) of the film. His analysis is subtle, acute, and scathing enough to activate the film’s critique, even without making explicit the conceptualizations that may lie underneath. That’s Feng’s genius: the utterly precise analysis he performs, with his satiric linguistic scalpel, of how power speaks in Chinese, how officials assert authority, and how citizens negotiate with them—yielding, resisting, fighting back, sometimes withdrawing. It’s this marvellously subtle dance of discourses, of and against power, in which Feng’s cinema revels. Bovary’s mayors, judges, and governors are mostly weak men with the wind of Party authority at their backs. Some know how to use that wind; some waste it. And citizens like Lian discover how to deploy a corresponding set of strategies from the side of formal powerlessness, but with unbending stubbornness born of moral superiority.

I’ve saved a key detail of the film for last. It’s not really a detail, actually, but rather the first thing that strikes many viewers: the film has two aspect ratios. For the most part, the action appears in a circular-shaped aperture, surrounded by a black matte; but on two occasions, when the action shifts from rural Jiangxi to Beijing, the aspect ratio changes to an almost perfect square (which looks like a slightly elongated vertical rectangle, though that’s an optical illusion). Several critics have written that these circular framing shots are derived from classical Chinese painting, but I don’t see the evidence save for a few album leaves, some Southern Song exceptions, and a few 19th-century curio paintings. (Classical-era fan paintings are entirely different, with rounded shapes and flattened edges.) Contemporary artist Wei Dong’s somewhat archaizing versions of these are the proximate source for Feng’s circular inspiration: several hang in Feng’s studio, and they are quoted onscreen in the film’s prologue.

Feng and his cinematographer Luo Pan establish the changes between circle and square frames very cleverly: square objects within the circle set up the transition to the Beijing/urban square format; a round tunnel within the square later sets up the retransition back to the rural/Jiangxi circle. Within these two matte frames, Feng and Luo use a surprisingly restricted set of shot setups. The film is all long shots, medium-long shots, and medium shots; there are almost no close-ups, and almost no over the shoulder shot-reverse-shot setups. Instead, Feng and Luo give us multi-character shots with relatively long takes, little camera movement save for occasional lateral tracking, and constant cutting across the axis. The effect is certainly distancing: we don’t stop noticing the circular frame in the rural scenes, and the frequently clever, sometimes weirdly and inventively beautiful framings that the film offers, especially in landscapes. Roundness in this film has associations with nature, female-gendered subjects, community, wholeness, and humanity.

The square frame, on the other hand, is Feng’s evocation of central authority. Derived from Beijing’s almost square concentric grids, it suggests the Forbidden City at Beijing’s centre, courtyards, structured power and authority, and masculine-gendered discourse—a rigid, defining, and imprisoning space. Lian lives in her rural landscaped circles, but ventures out into power’s square space twice, where she achieves a temporary victory, then a final defeat. The final shot of the film’s original version broadens out from a suicidal square to something like Lian’s tragic apotheosis. Here, Feng finally expands the constrictive square to a full-fledged widescreen, seared with Lian’s ambivalent laughter as her indomitable profile disappears. She is replaced by cool green round water lilies lying placidly on the surface of a pond seemingly undisturbed by her destruction, deceptively untroubled by the churning tensions that lie just underneath. They are dangerous and unresolved, but not completely invisible, if you know where and how to look.