Today’s film was suggested by a friend of mine. Said friend has already seen this, and gave it a 5/10 and called it a “chore to watch.” So really, is this friend trying to have me suffer? Not likely, but it’s fun to imagine exaggerative scenarios.
This film is really confusing. I refuse to accept any other adjective for it aside from that—it would be fake. The only real adjective is “confusing,” and those who try to sully the sanctity of the film with things like “beautiful” or “proud” will be promptly sued by me continuously for a decade. Any rhyme or reason, deliberately told to convince me otherwise and restrict me from adhering to my obscene stubbornness, will be rejected. It’s just really confusing.
The prior paragraph was a not-so-subtle nod to the behavior of the lead character in I Am Not Madame Bovary, which initially alienated my desire to empathy with her whatsoever. Ridiculously cumbersome to deal with, she’s constantly obstructing the peace to scream and cry about some situation with her ex-husband. She’s absolutely determined to clear her name, which has been associated with “Pan Jinlian,” a term designated for women who have committed adultery. This makes for the foundation of the story, evolving throughout until it becomes something much larger.
This early streak of tomfoolery, I suppose I can call it, did not provide much motivation to pay close attention. Where was the motivation? Why is this woman being so unreasonable? What exactly is the point this film is trying to make, if any? It’s a constricting, circular view in the life of this poor peasant woman, who tries so hard for anyone to take her case seriously. It dragged on considerably, with interest rising only by just how far she can push her government officials’ buttons.
At a certain point, maybe 50 minutes in, the scope of the film changes. Suddenly it’s less about the contents of the case and more about the woman that parades about. The government begins to fear her—her ruckus starts to show badly on those working to thwart her. And at that point, I couldn’t help but think of Shin Godzilla. Meetings and more meetings; people constantly groveling to superiors and begging for forgiveness; officials pointing fingers and trying to save face upon failure. I could sense the sort of “satirical” leanings that these scenes provided, but by this point, I was just over it.
Similar to some degree to Songs My Brothers Taught Me, I Am Not Madame Bovary struggles with coherence. It’s supposed to be satirical, apparently, with comedy brought upon by bizarre circumstances and the way a big, powerful government struggles to contain a single woman. A pointed critique on the people in power and how far they’d go for higher status, as well as… uh, an emotional story about a woman finding purpose, maybe? It seems to shift and change quite a bit, with its ending proving a bittersweet accumulation. Most of the time, I didn’t know what to think. Not for a lack of trying, I was only compelled by bits of the whole.
Somewhat of an aside from the general content of the film, but one scene really stuck out to me… for wrong reasons. Maybe two-thirds of the way through the film, a childhood friend smitten with the female lead accompanies her to Beijing, where she intends to bring up her case once again. At one point, they check into a hotel, and upon entering their room, the friend immediately assaults her. Despite her constant rejections and measures to get him away, he continues, eventually outright raping her.
Afterwards, they’re shown lying in bed naked together, and she even comments, “You know that was rape, right?” But it’s brushed off—by both him and the film. It was apparently the best she ever had, and that alone was enough to convince her to swear off the case, return home, and get married… to the person who raped her. What the actual fuck?????
My initial rating for this was higher than I’ll specify at the end of this piece, but thinking on this scene… nah.
I did mention before that the film is very “circular.” As you can see from the screenshots provided so far, the presentation of this story is a little distinct. Most scenes are only shown through a circular lens, almost as though we’re looking at it through one of those paper towel rolls. Other scenes, such as those set in Beijing, are boxed, revealing a little more but still share a feeling of constriction.
This was among my favorite aspects of I Am Not Madame Bovary, as it gave me food to nibble on all throughout. Purely theorizing, I wondered if the circular view was implied to symbolize how little of the story we really knew, with us only seeing a portion of what’s truly apparent. In Beijing, the screen goes a little wider, which provides a better view, hinting at something more integral. At the very end, it almost complies with the standard letterbox format; almost as if the viewer finally sees the width of the circumstances. It bounces from circle to box, however, which pokes holes in my theory. It’s intriguing to think upon, to say the least. More than the story itself.
I’ll also give credit to the actors involved—I don’t think there was a single person who did anything apart from purely believable. Fan Binging may have played an insufferable person, but she absolutely poured on the despair when necessary. Most others were provided a lot of range, whether sneakily aloof, solemnly serious, or cowardly in the presence of punishment. The scenes involving all the finger-pointing and deflection of blame were more effective simply because it was beautifully enacted.
I was particularly fond of the person playing Mayor Ma—their identity I cannot seem to identify at this time. Vicious in their niceties, they’d threaten others with wholesome nonsense and a calm demeanor. I would like to exude those traits at some point in my life—I mean, what?
A frustrating film to watch, mostly because it had a lot of interesting foundations given away to inconsistency. Strong performances and an interesting visual hook are only a sugary coating to an otherwise sour-tasting experience, especially tainted by one scene in particular. I don’t regret watching this, interesting as that may be. It was intriguing more than anything, though not worth a re-watch anytime soon, if ever.
Final Score: 5/10
The rating for all other films can be found at Letterboxd.
For more, check out the March of the Movies Archive!