i-am-not-madame-bovarydir. Xiaogang Feng, China 2016.

We can’t have just one big film festival in this town at once– it’s also Woche der Kritik Berlin! Tonight’s theme was “Apparatus”, in the context of director Feng Xiaogang’s I AM NOT MADAME BOVARY.

The film is the parable of a Li Xuelian (Fan Bingbing), a woman from a rural village who finds herself taking on the political chain all the way up to Beijing after the local courts rule against her in her suit to retract her divorce, which she claims that she and her ex-husband had falsified in order to circumvent government housing policies at the time. The various bureaucrats to whom she appeals can’t do much about the situation, even after her ex smears her reputation in an impulsive attempt to defend his own actions in the affair. She summarily adds all of these officials to her suit, and heads begin to roll.

On its face, the absurdity of the situation can easily yield comedy, but Fan’s performance centers the proceedings in its resilient focus. While we recognize that she’s been wronged, after watching her suffer even more in her attempts to get that wrong acknowledged, we want her to find some sort of peace more than anything else.

“Not seeing the forest for the trees” is a phrase repeated throughout the film, applying perhaps to Xuelian’s disregard for most any other aspects of her own life in continuing with the suit for 10 years, but certainly to the government representatives from the bottom up, who neither see a small-town divorce case as worth their time nor seem able to look past the myopia of preserving their own positions when Xuelian’s actions draw notice from their superiors.

As such, Feng and DP Pan Luo lens the movie almost entirely in a circle at the center of the screen. They do employ a couple of other aspect ratios, expanding to a 1:1 square for the Beijing sequences, though the editing is often subtle enough, and one’s eyes are so focused on the action that the transition initially goes by without notice.

It’s somewhat of a demanding aesthetic– at least in the back of the viewer’s mind, there is an awareness of all the empty screen space. It does yield some particularly lovely compositions, especially on the water or in the mountains, showcasing the natural beauty of Xuelian’s surroundings. But even then, one is very much aware of what is not being shown, since we are not used to seeing the image being cropped circularly. Similarly, the camera often remains still as characters walk to the left or right of the circle, as their voices carry into the corresponding surround sound speakers. I found myself alternating between eventually acclimating to this visual grammar, only to be jarred by it again.

Further, one can argue that such an extreme choice demonstrates some level of distrust between the filmmakers and the audience, as if the viewers couldn’t appreciate the themes depicting the human nature of myopia without their vision being literally and severely limited in the bargain.

But I think it was worth it. You know that the emptiest of spaces will eventually be filled. You have to believe it. And in the meantime, you feel Xuelian’s isolation, fighting to restore her good name long after she’s been dismissed as a kook and been the butt of any number of jokes far and wide. It is purely visceral cinema.

As a Critics Week screening, the film was followed by a Q&A with Liu Zhenyun, who wrote the screenplay based on his novel, in dialogue with critics and filmmakers from Germany and Venezuela. While it’s true that Germans can be very direct, they also by and large strive to be good hosts. As such, the moderators and critics took great care not to necessarily criticize the Chinese government or to label it as authoritarian, even while picking at the political aspects of the story. The level to which everyone danced around the politics was sometimes awkward, but I’m also not sure what would have been gained from discussing it directly, particularly when the story had given us much more personal contexts to consider.

Liu for his part also focused more on the human aspects of his work, like most creators. And particularly emphasized his effort not to draw the characters as heroes or villains, not wanting to render a worldview in black and white. Chinese audiences, like tonight’s, were similarly surprised that this movie made it past the government censors– even if the bureaucrats aren’t meant to be the heavies of the piece, they certainly largely do not come off in a positive light. Yet Liu related stories of real government officials congratulating him upon seeing the movie, on how well he had captured their reality. I’m reminded of the police officers both in the rank and file and further up the chain of command who relished “The Shield” and “The Wire” despite/because of the attention those series brought to their institutional dysfunction.

It was intriguing to witness the trickle of cultural exchanges beginning to form in the context of this film and discussion. To steal a line from BRIDGE OF SPIES, art has to be able to have the conversations that governments can’t. Tonight, the art spoke to us in ways that we couldn’t quite articulate to each other afterwards, even with a top-notch interpreter in the house. We came to observe and deconstruct the Apparatus, but it turned out that that machinery was incidental. A fictional woman standing in for countless others whose stories go unshared every day asked for our attention instead. When we understand people, the apparatus falls away.


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