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Contradicting Voices from China at ZFF

[…] On the other side, we find a real apology of the party and uncritical praise of the actual hierarchy and verticality of the political system.

[…] In fact, some values remain unquestioned in the film, and are considered simply as given: in particular, the case of the non-virginity of women before marriage, which is judged as serious as, or even more serious than, adultery and betrayal perpetrated by a married man.

[…] This film shows us the importance of having a critical stance, which has to go deeper than the fake criticism put forward by the film itself.

I admit it: I was attracted by the daring use of circular and square framings, and probably also by the old-fashioned photography that can be seen in the commercial trailer of I Am Not Madame Bovary. Even the original title is intriguing. But the screening of the film at the Zurich Film Festival was a perfect example of how high expectations can turn out to be a great deception – albeit a very instructive deception. I decided to write about this movie because I consider this film an exercise of hypocrisy and disrespect towards the basic tenets of democracy. But then, I felt almost obliged to write some lines about this movie when I heard of the scandal (there is no other word for it) of this film receiving the main prize at the San Sebastian Film Festival.

The movie opens as a fairytale with an old-fashioned aesthetic that vaguely hints at ancient Chinese drawings. It has a good tempo and the story is captivating: indeed, that remains the real strength of I Am Not Madame Bovary. But, the first bad surprise comes on the formal level: the acting is very poor, emphatic and unnatural, even if played in a naturalist framework. On top of that, the dramaturgy is frozen in a series of static scenes that are completely dependent only on the dialogues; we seem to be attending a bad representation of an outdated vaudevillian theatre. The photography is ostentatious but made of a cheap beauty, delivering us a kitsch, touristy image of a non-existent ancient China, which pretends to be contemporary China at the same time.

That is probably the first important aspect to stress: I Am Not Madame Bovary gives us a precise picture of the landscape and reality of rural China, a picture that is in a complete contradiction with the rural China we could observe in the abundant quantity of documentary films coming from China in recent years and showing us a picture of poverty and corruption, underdevelopment and ecological disasters. Fiction and art are free from the need to depict the real conditions of life, yes, but here this fake image of rural China cannot but raise some suspicion in us… This impression is reinforced when we observe how, under the polished and ostensibly innocent shell of the story, the movie seemingly wants to transmit a moral lesson on the role of the good citizen in China. More than once we are in front of highly ranked politicians of the party that gives a sage speech about the good behavior of the good citizen. The Chinese citizen must consider the little actions of daily life to be more important than the big questions concerning society; this is a good philosophy, but, after all, one that hides its message by staying far from the big questions concerning the country and politics. The Chinese citizen must not mess with problems bigger than his/her simple life of a diligent, obedient and hard-working person. And, moreover, he/she has to trust people: another message against a critical attitude towards what happens around him/her.

The hero of the movie, a woman peasant, tries to get justice in her private case of fake and real divorce, and, when the bureaucrats don’t care about her requests, she doesn’t give up and starts an escalated process of suing people, from the local judge to the heads of the national party (interesting to notice that it is obvious that politicians are more powerful than judges…). Now, this case concerning justice is systematically concluded with the importance of following the ancient tradition and the old mottos of this tradition. Even the senior politicians are embracing this new traditionalism. This trend is apparently far from the communist dogmas, but it seems largely coherent with a conservative and hierarchical organization of society – thus fitting well to a party dictatorship. In fact, some values remain unquestioned in the film, and are considered simply as given: in particular, the case of the non-virginity of women before marriage, which is judged as serious as, or even more serious than, adultery and betrayal perpetrated by a married man.

More than limiting itself to only moral questions, I Am Not Madame Bovary commits itself to delivering a direct description of Chinese political establishment – certainly a delicate task in a country that is highly preoccupied with massive and violent censorship. Yet, on one side, there is an easy criticism of bureaucracy (a captatio benevolentiae?), where misdeeds always turn out to be the fault of little employees and culpability decreases the higher the rank of the politician in the hierarchy of the party. On the other side, we find a real apology of the party and uncritical praise of the actual hierarchy and verticality of the political system. With this background, while two important representatives of the party slowly walk and philosophize on a corridor full of sun, we hear them say that the most important thing is the defense of the state of law. And the entire story of I Am Not Madame Bovary is focused on the fact that a peasant woman (the representative of a lower level of social hierarchy…) can openly criticize and sue judges and politicians, and she will be finally welcomed and heard. What a nice picture this would be…

But is this a portrait that even vaguely corresponds to reality? I know we could quickly answer negatively to this question. But let another film speak, a documentary film. Actually, it would be easy to find dozens of films contradicting the idyllic picture of I Am Not Madame Bovary, but we can comfortably remain at the Zurich Film Festival and just change the cinema theatre to get a striking and convincing answer to our question.

Hooligan Sparrow (Hai Nan Zhi Hou), by Nanfu Wang, is a filmic documentation about Ye Haiyan, aka “Sparrow”, a Chinese activist fighting for sex workers’ rights. Actually, Nanfu follows her in her 2013 protest against the police and government, as they tried to allow the case of a mass rape of young schoolgirls by the school principal to go unpunished: the defending lawyer is convinced that the principal was only “offering” the teens to government officials as a bribe. It is important to say that this case is said not to be unique in China, but almost a general habit. In addition to this atrocious deed and the fight to have justice concerning it, the documentation “had” to focus its attention on the systematic threats and violence that the police and unknown people perpetrate against Sparrow and all the activists fighting with her, almost all of them suffering from beatings and illegal detention. Nanfu Wang lives in the States, and the four months spent in China filming Sparrow and other activists develop themselves as an escalation of threats and violence, finally directly involving the filmmaker. It is interesting that Nanfu can show how this violence is mainly the output of corruption, as the people that directly use force and aggression are just poor people corrupted by government officials. The corruption involves the journalists too, who imposed an unjustly bad reputation on Sparrow and the other activists, so that she could not find any place to stay, as people all work against her to avoid trouble. She finally had to return to her little town in the countryside, and that is an interesting occasion for us to discover the reality of rural China, made of extreme poverty, despair, suicides.

Coming back to I Am Not Madame Bovary, our deception turns into anger against what we should call a hypocritical pamphlet that is put together in order to convey a false image of contemporary China. This film shows us the importance of having a critical stance, which has to go deeper than the fake criticism put forward by the film itself. This case is very instructive, if we refer to the communication strategy and the political hypocrisy that is typical of our modern dictatorships, or fake democracies, like in Russia, Turkey, or Iran. It is a pity to see such a film winning the first prize in an important festival like San Sebastian. And one has naturally to cast some doubts even on the selection at the Zurich Film Festival, which, hopefully, with a typically Swiss democratic touch, hosted Hooligan Sparrow at the same time. Actually, the latter is screened in the parallel series “Border Lines”, which is organized in collaboration with Amnesty International, whereas I Am Not Madame Bovary is part of the Gala Premieres… So, let’s put the border at the centre, and let’s all say: «I am proud to be Madame Bovary!».

Text: Giuseppe Di Salvatore
First published: October 04, 2016

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