Thursday, November 24, 2016

Divorce, Chinese Style: Someone to Talk To & I Am Not Madame Bovary

Almost got to post this entry about Chinese movies from China, as I had a layover in the Beijing airport on my way to my final vacation destination, but for a major international hub, it doesn't really have the spots to work or great wi-fi or the like. Also: Kind of chilly. Still, there were ads for I Am Not Madame Bovary running all over the airport, and I'm writing these words on an Air China flight, which is kind of something.

It's interesting that both films were written by the same person, doubly so when you consider that Bovary likely would have come out first if not for a number of odd delays for reasons that are either numerous or not entirely clear. It's still the better movie, but the timing makes Someone to Talk To seem a bit better - it's a warm-up, rather than a step down.

One thing that kind of struck me as interesting in both movies is the "divorce certificate", complete with photographs. I suppose that there must be some sort of document when people get divorced anywhere, but it's seldom seemed like something whose legitimacy would need to be proven like that. Is this something that is more likely to be done unilaterally in China, especially with people more likely to travel to another city to find work?

In any case, I'm not sure how long Bovary is going to hang around American cinemas, especially with packed holiday weekends coming and it seeming more like something that belongs in the boutique houses than the big multiplexes, what with its circular aspect ratio and odd shifts in tone. Worth checking out, if only because seeing a movie shaped like that is a different experience that encourages closer looks.

Yi ju ding yi wan ju (Someone to Talk To)

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 8 November 2016 in AMC Boston Common #6 (first-run, DCP)

I'm not sure I can recall a film that works its name into the dialogue quite so much as Someone to Talk To; it's right on the line of where one can't help but remember the hyper-literal names American movies were given when translated into Chinese. To their credit, the filmmakers don't treat the desire to share conversation in a marriage as any sort of grand revelation, even if they do put it right in the foreground from the start.

And that start, to its credit, is pretty amusing, as we see a fresh-faced young Niu Aiguo (Mao Hai) and Pang Lina (Li Qian) enthusiastically getting their marriage license, telling the official that they alway shave something to talk about, only to get shoved aside by a divorcing couple pointing out how their entire reservoir of affection and conversation dried up. From there we flash forward ten years to the pair barely speaking, although daughter Baihui has them wrapped around her finger. Things unravel in ugly form, while Aiguo's sister Aixiang (Liu Pei) is trying to find someone before reaching forty, not entirely aware of the crush her brother's army buddy Song Jiefang (Fan Wei) has on her.

She's been burned badly before, enough that the phrase "drinking pesticide" is repeated as a common thing for people who have been hurt by love to do. In a way, it makes for an intriguing inversion to the movie's title and the usual romantic arc: Everybody says they just want someone they can talk to at the end of the day, but those modest spoken desires belie the passion actually felt and wanted; it's why quiet people attempt suicide and Aiguo cuts Lina out of their daughter's life with such ferocity. The trouble is, director Liu Yulin and writer Liu Zhenyun don't quite forcus on that; their story goes all over the place and has frustratingly little room for Lina's perspective. It centers on Aiguo with everyone else there to let him do as he will, but he's not the whole story nor even necessarily the most interesting part.

Maybe that's as good a metaphor for divorce and relationship failures as you can find in a movie by this name - all sorts of implied opportunities for interaction but nobody's stories connecting. True as that may be, it isn't nearly as satisfying to watch as it could be, and while the film has some interesting moments and ideas, it can't help but be overshadowed by the other movie about divorced that Liu Zhenyun wrote.

Wo bu shi Pan Jin Lian (I Am Not Madame Bovary)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 19 November 2016 in AMC Boston Common #12 (first-run, DCP)

My first thought on seeing the previews for I Am Not Madame Bovary, and for a while during the movie, involved wondering what a conscientious projectionist would do to try and matte it properly, what with the circular image and all. It's a simultaneously distracting and focusing way to present this particular movie, promising that it's clever and satiric and deserving a close read even if the exact meaning can sometimes be a little tough to grasp, despite being front and center.

After all, even before the story proper has started, the audience has to confront the unusual framing; as much as human vision is basically elliptical, we mostly view the world through rectangular portals, whether they be movie screens or windows (the literal kind or the ones on computers). So when we see the initially-circular image in front of us, unavoidably with a border and a rectangle around it, we're forced to think of other times we see the world with round borders. The film doesn't feel particularly telescopic, though - we aren't at an unusual remove, or voyeuristically watching the action with a secret interest. Perhaps a microscope is a better metaphor, though there's nothing about this story that presents its characters as particularly small or mysterious, something to be studied to understand the mechanisms at play, at least until it is nearing its end. And if that's the case, why the square frame for the scenes taking place in and around Beijing? An implication that things are more orderly there, with less potentially hidden in margins?

That story revolves around Li Xuelian (Fan Bingbing), "Lian" for short, important because Pan Jinlian is the Chinese equivalent of the Madame Bovary of the English-language title, and her husband attempting to equate them is a blow to her self-respect. As the film starts, she is upset because, when she and husband Qin Yuhe (Li Zonghan) divorced a year previously, she believed it to be "fake", a way to manipulate the government's housing regulations so that he could get a better apartment that they could keep when remarrying, only for him to marry another woman. So she takes her case to Justice Wang (Dong Chengpeng), then the chief justice, the county chief, and the mayor, all of whom blow her off. She considers murder, but also makes her way to Beijing, where she meets old classmate Zhao Datou (Guo Tao), a chef at the facility where the National People's Congress is held. The fallout from that visit may not repair her reputation, but ten years later, it has the new county chief (Yu Hewei) and mayor (Zhang Jia-yi) panicked about what she might do at that year's NPC, even when she says she has no plans to go to Beijing.

Full review on EFC.

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