Double Feature – From Madame Bovary to Hamlet in China

A few years ago, director Feng Xiaogang won my heart with The Banquet [Ye yan] (2006), a spectacular wu xia reinterpretation of Hamlet which handed the role of protagonist to his mother. Earlier this week I finally took the opportunity to experience I Am Not Madame Bovary [Wo bushi Pan Jinlian] (2016), a small scale comedy about a country woman whose attempt to change the legal status of her divorce exposes the weaknesses of a bureaucracy trying to deal with an uncategorisable case.

One rain-drenched day, Li Xuelian (Fan Bingbing) crosses the river from her small country house to arrive on the doorstep of Justice Wang Gongdao (Da Peng). His uncle’s wife’s sister’s relative is married to her second cousin on her aunt’s side, so they’re practically family! She wants his help getting a divorce from her husband Qin Yuhe (Li Zonghan) – which isn’t as simple as it sounds, since according to her marriage certificate they’re already divorced. As far as Xuelian is concerned, this doesn’t count because it was a fake divorce aimed at improving their standard of living – they agreed that she would keep the house and he would get nothing, with the result that his employers would then be required to find him an apartment in town. Although their plan was to remarry and sell the house, Yuhe instead took the opportunity to marry another woman – so what Xuelian actually wants is to take her husband to court to prove that their (legally real) divorce was a fake divorce so she can have his marriage annulled, remarry him and then divorce him properly.

Her ex-husband doesn’t even bother to turn up to court, sending his lawyer in his stead, and – predictably – the judgement does not go in her favour. Unwilling to let it rest, she takes her grievances against Justice Wang’s judgement to newly appointed Chief Justice Xun (Liu Xin). Unhappy with her reception, she attempts to report all three men to County Chief Shi Weimin (Zhao Lixin), who pretends to be his own secretary and ducks out of the building through the rear exit. When Mayor Cai (Jiang Yongbo) returns from a trip to find her three days into a sit-down protest in the middle of the road, he instructs his subordinates to get her out of the way so that everything looks good when the Governor arrives for his inspection – leading, through a series of miscommunications, to her arrest and incarceration. When she finally confronts her husband directly, he uses the “you started it” defence to justify his infidelity since she wasn’t a virgin when they married, compounding his insult by comparing her to Pan Jinlian.

So about the movie’s title. “Madame Bovary” is an inexact cultural substitution for “Pan Janlian”, getting across the broad idea but missing out some crucial finer details. Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, one of 18th century French literature’s most famous characters, was an unhappily married woman whose extra-marital liaisons resulted in her ruin – and who has been uncharitably categorised by some as little more than a venal social climber. Pan Janlian, a character from Lanling Xiaoxiao Sheng’s novel Jin Ping Mei (c. 1610), took her infidelity one step further – she conspired with her lover to murder her husband, an act which ultimately led to her association with the patron goddess of brothels and prostitutes. While neither comparison is at all fair on Li Xuelian, clearly a comparison to Pan Janlian is far worse (and even more unjustified), so it’s little wonder that she briefly flirts with the idea of offering her body in exchange for her husband’s death. Abandoning this plan, she travels to Beijing, arriving shortly before the annual National People’s Congress, where miraculously – thanks in part to her old classmate Zhao Datou (Guo Tao) working there as a chef – manages to have her case heard by the Chairman (Gao Ming) himself!

The second half of the movie jumps forward in time ten years. Although each of the authority figures who flouted her lost their positions as a result of her visit to Beijing, the core of her initial complaint remains unresolved. Every year she has returned to Beijing to pursue her case. With the date of the next congress fast approaching, the local authorities are understandably nervous – despite her firm and repeated statements that she has no plans to make the trip again. This time the trajectory of the first half of the movie is reversed – after a visit from Justice Wang, her original contact, each of the local authority figures visits her to beg, persuade or coerce her into abandoning the plans she is adamant she has not made. As you can probably guess, their efforts do not have the desired effect – although the ensuing events are unlikely to take the path you’d expect.

The screenplay was adapted by Liu Zhenyun from his 2012 novel, which was translated into English under the title I Did Not Kill My Husband. Zhenyun is married to Guo Jianmei, a human rights activist and founder of the Beijing University Law School Women’s Legal Research and Services Centre, whose expertise seems likely to have been an influence on this story. His propensity for political critique can be clearly seen in the film’s depiction of a rigid and uncaring hierarchical bureaucracy, in which figures of authority are far more interested in hiding behind a strict interpretation of the rules as a means of avoiding responsibility than in thinking outside of their prescribed roles and attempting to address the root causes of real human concerns. Zhenyun uses the Chairman as a mouthpiece for how such a system is supposed to work, thus deftly avoiding censure for any suggestion that the man at the top of the pyramid is in any way flawed, but cheekily has him deny that he has any intention of giving a speech before “reluctantly” allowing the applause of his subordinates to “convince” him to dispense his words of wisdom. It’s also notable that while the Chairman has the relevant bureaucrats removed from their positions and sent to re-education camps, he hands off responsibility for fixing the human minutiae to those further down in the hierarchy. The only evidence that any of his lessons have been learned comes through the figure of Mayor Ma (Zhang Jiayi) in the second half of the film, who points out to his subordinates the ways in which their inability to consider Xuelian as a human being rather than a problem has simply exacerbated matters. But although this new Mayor is more socially engaged and does his best to meet Xuelian on her own level, his efforts are in vain and he comes to the conclusion that a system in which everyone is forced to constantly second-guess how their actions will be perceived might well be incapable of truly considering the individual’s wellbeing.

Director Feng Xiaogang has taken a decidedly unconventional approach in making the movie – specifically in his use of aspect ratios. The film opens on a series of circular paintings depicting the story of Pan Janlian, as narrated by the director himself. As the story transitions from Janlian to Xuelian, the circular framing remains and the sporadic narration continues, accentuating the ties between the two characters and creating the impression that Xuelian is trapped within somebody else’s story. Once she begins her journey to Beijing, the screen blacks out as her train enters a tunnel and splashes of colour are seen at the extreme edge of the screen. Switching to the perspective of the train, the camera moves towards the circular exit of the tunnel – only for the sides of the image to crash inwards as the train emerges, changing the framing from circular to rectangular. (Although some sources list this as a square 1:1 frame, the image is slightly narrower than its height, adding to the sense of confinement.) The first half concludes with two characters discussing the aftermath of the Chairman’s decision in front of a circular archway, before switching back again to a circular frame to show Xuelian in her home town. The eventual return to Beijing marks a return to the vertical rectangular frame, but this time the concluding conversation takes place against a series of receding circular archways framed by squares marked out in yellow neon. As the speakers progress through the arches and the camera follows them, switching back and forth to show them from both sides, they approach a circular window with a view onto a rural landscape – but rather than return to the circular frame at the end of this sequence, Xuelian’s failure to receive the resolution she desired keeps her trapped within the rectangular frame. Her story threatens to take an ominous trajectory until the tension is punctured by an unexpected joke – at which point the picture breaks free from its restraints and expands to the standard anamorphic widescreen ratio of 2.35:1. It’s only in this final section, in which Xuelian is no longer confined by somebody else’s narrative, that we learn the deeper motivation behind her persistence with what might otherwise seem an entirely trivial court case.

Fan Bingbing is the clear star of the piece, an accomplished actor/singer/model who is almost unrecognisable here compared to the more glamorous roles in which she is usually cast. I Am Not Madame Bovary is her second collaboration with this writer/director pairing – the three of them previously worked together on Cell Phone [Shouji] (2003), a comedy about the way mobile phones have affected interpersonal communication, in which I’m now much more interested than I would otherwise have been. I’ve yet to see her in anything else, but a few of her excursions into genre cinema are on my current watchlist, such as crime drama Shinjuku Incident [Xinsu Shijian] (2009), historical martial arts piece Shaolin [Xin Shaolín si] (2011) and fantasy extravaganza The White Haired Witch of Lunar Kingdom [Baifa monu zhuan zhi mingyue tianguo] (2014). Turning to the English language market, she’s appeared in two Marvel movies to date. Her scenes in Iron Man 3 (2013) will be unfamiliar to most western viewers, as they were filmed specifically for the Chinese release (although they can be found – unsubtitled – on YouTube). She’s more likely to be remembered for playing Blink in X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014) – I remain cheerfully oblivious of most of the X-movies and hadn’t even considered watching this one until now. I’m far more likely to watch The 355 (2022), an upcoming action movie featuring an international team of five female spies.

Feng Xiaogang made his mark as a filmmaker within the field of he sui pian movies, a variety of comedy made specifically in celebration of the Chinese New Year. While comedies of one type or another dominate his creative output, the film which first drew him to my attention couldn’t be more different. The Banquet, more luridly known in America as Legend of the Black Scorpion, is a lavish costume drama which situates a version of Shakespeare’s Hamlet in Tang Dynasty China. In this version of the story, the budding romance between Hamlet/Crown Prince Wu Luan (Daniel Wu Neh-Tsu) and the four-years-younger noblewoman Gertrude/Little Wan (Zhang Ziyi) was cut short when his father the Emperor decided that she would be his Empress, leading the Prince to abandon the court and study the arts. During his absence his father is murdered by his brother Claudius/Emperor Li (Ge You), clearly acting more out of desire for Wan than for the kingdom. He immediately sends assassins to kill the Prince, but the Dowager Empress Wan (soon to be the new Empress) anticipates this and sends her own men ahead to warn him. Wan’s handmaiden Ophelia/Qing (Zhou Xun) was brother to the Prince by his father – she’s clearly in love with him, but accepts that she will always be in Wan’s shadow. Qing’s father Polonius/Minister Yin Taichang (Ma Jingwu), now on his third Emperor, is used to shifting his allegiances to suit the times – when the more steadfast General Pei Hong (Zeng Qiusheng) makes his opinion about the succession openly known, he and his family are executed and his title granted to Minister Yin’s son Laertes/General Yin Sun (Huang Xiaoming). Empress Wan assumes the dominant role in the plot, a skilled manipulator who is intent on orchestrating the situation so that the Prince will end up on the throne in place of his uncle, but – as you would expect – the competing agendas of all the above characters (not counting the deceased General) means that everything ultimately falls apart at the titular banquet.

Screenwriters Qiu Gangjian & Sheng Heyu (the latter of whom also co-wrote John Woo’s 2008 two-part epic Red Cliff [Chi bi]) have done a masterful job of adapting Shakespeare’s work to an entirely different cultural setting. The shift of Gertrude into the protagonist’s role is an inspired choice, and the reworking of the backstory allows them to make the use of the theory that Hamlet was in love with his mother while jettisoning the incest. The broad shape of the original story has been retained, but many of the details have been changed, which rings some interesting changes on the expected character dynamics. Qing is granted more agency than her counterpart Ophelia, and the climactic banquet sequence – which in this instance has a place for both her and her father (deceased by this point in Hamlet) – shuffles the key plot points between characters in a manner which breathes new life into the final confrontations.

Where I Am Not Madame Bovary was small scale and constrained, The Banquet is large scale and extravagant. Art director Tim Yip Kam-tim has created multiple huge sets and gorgeous costumes, shown off to perfection by Zhang Li’s cinematography under a typically excellent score by Tan Dun, mixing period music styles with more modern string arrangements. Both Tan Dun and Tim Yip had previously worked on Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon [Wo hu cang long] (2000), and Yip would reunite with Zhang Li on Red Cliff. And then there’s action choreographer Yuen Woo-ping, whose work on The Matrix (1999) made him perhaps the most internationally recognised name in his field, a reputation cemented by his work on Crouching Tiger and Kung Fu Hustle [Kung fu] (2004). His work here is breathtaking, making frequent use of slow motion photography to blur the lines between combat and dance.

Zhang Ziyi is the clear star and does a magnificent job of playing the master manipulator while communicating her true feelings to the audience, layering her scenes with multiple emotions and motivations – what she wants the other characters to think, what she’s actually feeling, and the extent to which the lines between these sides blur when wants to believe she’s feeling something else. Among the talented directors with whom she’s worked are Zhang Yimou (three films including 2002’s Hero [Yingxiong]), Ang Lee (Crouching Tiger), Tsui Hark (2001’s The Legend of Zu [Shu shan zhuan]), Wong Kar Wai (two films including 2004’s 2046), Suzuki Seijun (2005’s Princess Raccoon [Operetta tanuki goten]), Chen Kaige (2008’s Forever Enthralled [Mei Lanfang]), Jonas Åkerlund (2009’s Horsemen) and John Woo (2014’s two-part The Crossing [Taipíng lun]) – although, going for the more low-brow end, she’s also appeared in a scattering of Hollywood productions from Rush Hour 2 (2001) to Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019). Ge You adds more nuance to his role as the usurping Emperor than you might expect, so it’s no surprised that he’s one of the director’s favourite actors, appearing in most of his films. And Zhou Xun gets to stretch her wings with a more prominent role as the fox spirit in the reincarnation-love-triangle duology of Painted Skin [Hua pi] (2008) and Painted Skin: The Resurrection [Hua pi er] (2012).

The Banquet was already sufficient to mark out Feng Xiaogang as a filmmaker to watch, but his ability to weave a very different type of tale in I Am Not Madame Bovary has cemented his reputation in my eyes. They’re not the most obvious pairing, and there’s a good chance that the potential audience overlap is smaller than I might like, but I’m more than happy to recommend them both.

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