Directed by Feng Xiaogang, a genre specialist who's been described as "the Steven Spielberg of China," I Am Madame Bovary isn't an adaptation of Flaubert so much as an invocation of its spirit: In China, to call a woman "Madame Bovary" is to accuse her of adultery in the most damning way possible. Lian (Fan Bingbing) and her husband agreed to a temporary divorce as a means of gaming the system and acquiring a second apartment before remarrying; during the interim, though, he shacked up with someone new. To this charge he answers with one of his own: Lian wasn't a virgin when they married.
Scorned, Lian sets off on what ends up being a 10-year quest to have her semi-conscious decoupling officially recognized as the farce she believes it to be. As inspired by Kafka as it is by Flaubert, I Am Not Madame Bovary features a revolving door of ineffectual bureaucrats stonewalling Lian. Contrasting the drab interiors is the novel cinematography: Most of Feng's film is seen through a circular lens barely accounting for half of the actual screen; anyone who prefers fullscreen DVDs (heathens!) because they "don't like the black bars" is sure to find this maddening, but I was absorbed. In addition to invoking traditional Chinese painting, cinematographer Luo Pan's lensing inspires curiosity as to what's beyond the edges, each shot expertly framed to elide as much as it reveals.
Her ordeal is stifling, but the visuals are striking. It's like an odd storybook you'd find in the attic and have trouble putting down -- the more quixotic Lian's journey becomes, the more you want her to see it through to the bitter end.