I Am Not Madame Bovary (3 stars)

I Am Not Madame Bovary

Engagingly eccentric, if overly elaborate Chinese dramedy from director Feng Xiaogang

Think your personal life is complicated? Spare a thought for Li Xuelian (Fan Bingbing), protagonist of this mannered Chinese dramedy. This young peasant woman has undertaken a scam with her husband Qin (Li Zonghan) – pretending they have divorced so as to claim a dream apartment available exclusively to single people – only to be scammed by him in return, when he meets somebody else and moves into the place with her instead.

Humiliated and homeless, Li petitions lawyers and politicians for settlement of her grievance – which in her mind will be achieved by the cancellation of the fake divorce, remarriage and a real divorce. Class and gender are against her in her efforts to have her story heard; the first official she approaches gives a foretaste of the resistance she will face by letting her stand in the rain on his doorstep instead of inviting her into his home. But Li becomes more rather than less determined, even as years go by.

As plots go, it's on the Byzantine side – and director Feng Xiaogang renders things still more elaborate with an unusual visual style that sees the picture largely confined to small circular frames. Calling to mind silent movies and peep shows, as well as antique Chinese painting, this is the sort of affectation one can presumably get away with if one is, like Feng, the director of enough major mainstream comedy hits to be known as the Chinese Spielberg. And if the effect is confounding in the distance it creates, it's also beautiful, focusing the mind upon the detail and gorgeous colours of each frame and creating a powerful metaphor for the restrictions on Li's life and self-expression.

Talky, formal and slow, but also engagingly eccentric, this is a film that's hard to place – although its feisty, indefatigably vengeful protagonist and theatrical style create unexpected resonances with Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill epics.

Selected release from Fri 26 May.

I Am Not Madame Bovary

  • 3 stars
  • 2016
  • China
  • 2h 19min
  • 12A
  • Directed by: Xiaogang Feng
  • Cast: Fan Bingbing, Dong Chengpeng, Fan Wei
  • UK release: 26 May 2017

Li Xuelian (Fan Bingbing) and her husband (Li Zonghan) pretend to have divorced so that they can have a dream apartment available only to singles; then he meets someone else. Talk, formal and slow dramedy about a woman’s search for justice, which is engagingly eccentric and, despite the mannerisms, beautiful.