Renowned Chinese director Feng Xiaogang's latest film, I Am Not Madame Bovary, has won several awards at the San Sebastian, Toronto and Taipei Golden Horse film festivals.
Despite these accolades, the film has received mixed reviews from audiences. Some have praised the film for its satirical take on male-dominated society and political problems in China, while others have criticized the storyline as being absolutely absurd.
The film, which stars Chinese actress Fan Bingbing, currently holds a 6.9/10 on popular Chinese media review site Douban.
If you plan to see the film so you can judge it for yourself, some background information may help you understand it better.
Who is Pan Jinlian?
Literally translated, the Chinese name of the film is actually "I am not Pan Jinlian." Pan is a famous fictional beauty who appeared in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) novel Outlaws of the Marsh. The character is famous for having an affair with the handsome merchant Ximen Qing and murdering her husband Wu Dalang, whom she had been forced to marry. The character's story is depicted in further detail in the erotic Ming Dynasty novel The Plum in the Golden Vase, in which she is written as a lascivious and coquettish woman.
In China, Pan is often regarded as a symbol of a pretty and dissolute woman who violates traditional morals.
In the film, Fan Bingbing's character Li Xuelian is from a small village. In order to get a home her husband's company only gives to single employees, she and her husband decided to get a "fake divorce." However, soon after the divorce her husband gets married to another woman and moves into the second home they bought. Feeling betrayed, Li turns to the courts in hopes of getting her divorce overturned so she can then divorce her ex-husband once again, this time on her own terms. However, she runs into considerable trouble when taking her case to the police, the mayor and the head of the county.
Trying to defend himself, her husband calls her a "Pan Jinlian," telling everyone that she was not a virgin when they got married.
In order to clear her name and get justice, Li goes to Beijing to bring her case to the higher levels of government.
In an attempt at something new, Feng has forsaken the traditional rectangular frame that fits movie screens, instead presenting the film in a round frame in order to make audiences feel like they are watching the characters through a peephole.
The topic of "fake divorces" is actually a very real issue in China.
As housing prices continue to rise, regulations concerning the number of houses a family can own have increased.
This has led to many issues. For instance, when rumors that down payments for a second home in Shanghai began circulating in September, the number of couples who filed for divorce was so high that the local civil affairs bureau had to shut down for a day.
Since most people outside of China are unfamiliar with the character of Pan Jinlian, the translators decided to find an equivalent character in Western literature for the English name of the film. They ended up settling on Madame Bovary.
Madame Bovary is the title of French writer Gustave Flaubert's masterpiece novel. Emma Bovary, who lives in a small town in France and is the wife of a doctor, has several affairs as she tries to escape from a life of banality.
The novel, published in 1857, was once regarded as pornographic because it involved content that violated the moral and religious ethics of the time. However, it is now regarded as a masterpiece of literary realism.
Emma Bovary and Pan Jinlian share many similarities. Both represent the life of women who went beyond the rules of their time. They also both reflect and challenge the male-dominated society of the period.