Flaubert would certainly agree with the titular assessment of “I Am Not Madame Bovary”: His pretty, hapless bourgeoise femme has very little in common with the heroine of leading populist Chinese director Feng Xiaogang’s latest. That latter lady is a modern peasant who’s none too pretty — despite being played by Fan Bingbing, duly de-glammed for the occasion — and anything but helpless, as her grudge against a runaway spouse turns into a quest for justice that reaches the highest levels of government.
This sly comic parable, eccentrically tricked out in reductive screen formats (before finally “going wide”), is the tale of an “ant” becoming an “elephant,” one that fittingly strings a long series of small anecdotal sequences into a near-epic narrative arc. Though its marquee names and trenchant social satire will prove most potent on home turf, “I Am Not Madame Bovary” could also beguile non-Chinese audiences beyond the fest circuit with its often sublime ridiculousness.
Adapting his own novel, screenwriter Lin Zhenyun first provides a short illustrated lecture explaining how in China, “Madame Bovary” was a fictive beauty (known as Pan Jinlian) whose infidelity led to murder, her name still a byword for devious, faithless femininity. That hardly seems relevant to the plight of provincial drudge Li (Bingbing), whom we first meet when she has traipsed far in the rain to arm-twist a local official into representing her in a case against her ex-husband. It’s not exactly a simple case: She claims the two got a “fake divorce” some months earlier in order to access better housing. But once they’d achieved that goal, her hubby jumped ship for real and got married to someone else rather than re-marrying Li as agreed. In her Byzantine logic, the court must invalidate the divorce so she can remarry, then divorce, truck driver Qin (Li Zonghan) anew, this time with full malice.
The judge, however, determines that the original severance was legal, and Li’s emotional grievances aren’t sufficient cause for further official action. While disappointed, she’s willing to drop the matter if her ex will simply admit his duplicity. But when confronted, he instead publicly humiliates her with the “Madame Bovary” slur. This has the effect of fanning those dying embers of vengeance into a brand new wildfire. Li now doggedly works her way up the ladder of town, city, and province officials, adding each one to her hit list as they serially snub her cause. Finally she journeys all the way to Beijing, where chance affords her fleeting audience with a very high-ranking government figure. His sympathetic ear translates into woeful news to all the bureaucrats who’d variably evaded, dismissed, and belittled her en route.
Yet Li still isn’t satisfied. At this midpoint juncture, the film jumps forward a decade, finding our heroine’s circumstances changed in some ways, but only some — in fact every year since, she has again visited Beijing with her ever-longer petition of petty wrongs that need righting, causing great embarrassment. There are surprising turns as authorities miscalculate with Li once again, renewing her angry determination just as she was about to give up the quest for justice in favor of a marriage proposal from an old flame (Guo Tao).
Long, relatively low-key but always engaging, “I Am Not Madame Bovary” wears its expansive scale lightly. While Feng’s decision to stick with odd image formatting almost throughout – -circular “tunnelvision” for the provincial scenes, a scroll-like vertical rectangle for Beijing ones — is somewhat off-putting, it does heighten the tale’s fable-like nature, not to mention the painterly qualities of Luo Pan’s handsome compositions. (The scroll and the circle are, of course, traditional Chinese painting formats.) Further adding to the droll overall package’s distinctive tenor is a colorfully diverse slate of locations, as well as a score by Du Wei that starts out with thundering taiko-style drums, then runs a wide gamut of additional musical influences.
The men who mostly dog her are portrayed by a starry lineup (including Da Peng as the longest-suffering bureaucrat), while Bingbing’s Li is a mulishly stubborn figure whose simplicity continually manages to flummox the more powerful — they can’t quite believe she means just what she says, or that her nerve so far exceeds her social station. Usually seen in distancing long or medium shots, this character is an Everywoman in both the proletarian and superheroic sense. Actor and director (who first worked together on her 2003 breakout “Cell Phone”) seamlessly unify a tonal range that stretches from farcical absurdism to pathos. Her gender rendering her even more frightening to an all-male roster of suits, outwardly nondescript Li is a triumphant cipher: The nobody who, at least briefly, succeeds in making a slew of Big Somebodies tremble in their well-shined shoes.