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A Film Diary

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Watched: 30 October

At the beginning of this Chinese drama by Feng Xiaogang an unnamed narrator describes the old tale of Pan Jinlian, an adulterous woman who kills her husband with the help of a lover (Pan Jinlian has been rather clumsily translated as Madame Bovary for – I presume – the benefit of western cinephiles, though I am doubtful that this misleading name change will have had much effect on the size of the film’s audience outside of China).

Feng’s story, though, takes place in the present, and follows Li Xuelian (Fan Bingbing) as she attempts to overturn a court’s decision against her, first appealing locally against a perceived injustice before stubbornly carrying the fight to a higher level, which gradually causes more and more headaches for various bigwigs in Beijing. The original court decision relates to her divorce, which Li wants annulled. It transpires that she conspired with her ex-husband – who we only see fleetingly – so that they could sidestep Chinese law relating to property ownership and buy a second house; after the sham divorce, however, Li’s husband took up with another woman, which means that she wants the separation to be cancelled so that she can subsequently divorce her husband again, this time for the right reasons. Her husband wants nothing to do with this, and falsely accuses Li of being a modern-day ‘Pan Jinlian’, thereby damaging her reputation.

There are elements of comic farce to the story. Li’s dogged refusal to accept official decisions or the general indifference of various power-wielding men (mayor, county judges, etc.) makes an already bizarre situation seem more and more strange, and her own growing frustration as time passes occasionally results in some blackly comic scenes, such as the one in which she tries to persuade her butcher to kill her ex-husband. There’s also implicit and explicit criticism of Chinese bureaucracy, local corruption and systematic incompetence in the way that this case – the outcome of which is important to one or two people but really a trifling concern to the leaders of an international superpower – begins to take up more and more of the central government’s time, doubtless at considerable expense.

It’s well acted – particularly by Fan – and the slow pace serves to underline the growing irritation of all involved at the lack of any progressive movement. However, perhaps the most notable element of the film is the way that it’s presented – mostly in a circular aspect ratio that recalls traditional Chinese art, though occasionally this does change briefly to a square. Aside from the oppressive feeling that this creates, the format cements the story’s link to the old Pan Jinlian tale, hinting at a long history of double standards when it comes to adultery and injustice experienced by those of a ‘peasant’ class, particularly women, as per the protagonist here. It’s unusual and refreshing to see, at first, although after 30 minutes or so I started to find it frustrating; if nothing else it seems a shame to me to lose 2/3 of the space of a modern screen to nothing. (***½)

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