At the age of 60 and, with more than 30 years in the film industry behind him as China’s most commercially successful director, Feng Xiaogang is still keen to push boundaries.
His latest dark comedy I Am Not Madame Bovary has been a case in point. Apart from sweeping awards at numerous film festivals across the world and receiving the top prize at Hong Kong’s Asian Film Awards in March, I Am Not Madame Bovary has as generated much buzz among critics for its unconventional aspect ratios as it has for its content.
The film is presented in a circular frame for most of its 140-minute running time, though in between there are brief moments when scenes widen into a square and a wide frame.
The reason for this stems from how “Chinese” the film’s story is, with the round frame reminiscent of traditional Chinese paintings harkening back to the Song dynasty (960-1279), says Feng, speaking on the sidelines of last month’s Far East Film Festival in Udine, Italy.
Having earned the nickname China’s “Spielberg,” thanks to his incredible box office successes, Feng was also honored with the Golden Mulberry Award for lifetime achievement at the festival, alongside veteran Hong Kong actor Eric Tsang Chi-wai.
Using the circular frame was a risk, Feng says, that he was willing to take, even though this decision to go against artistic convention was questioned by many of his friends.
“In a time where Hollywood scenes are becoming bigger and bigger with wider and wider screens, I instead restricted mine to a round circle. Unless you try, you don’t know whether the audience will accept it or not,” says Feng.
“The Huayi Brothers [studio, with whom Feng works] should not be guided by the market; on the contrary we have to educate and direct the audience, that’s why we are prone to experimenting.”
I Am Not Madame Bovary is a light-hearted social satire on the inefficiency of Chinese bureaucracy, the divide between ordinary citizens and government officials, and the power politics among bureaucrats at play.
The film stars acclaimed Chinese actress Fan Bingbing as a rural peasant named Li Xuelian, who is cheated on by her ex-husband. Hoping to seek justice for herself, she goes on a dogged quest to Beijing, which shakes up the entire central mainland government.
I Am Not Madame Bovary is arguably Feng’s most art-house film to date, an interesting deviation from his typical commercial releases, which have been consistent box-office hits over the years and have included rom-coms (If You Are the One – US$54 million) and action films (Aftershock – US$108 million).
The director’s filmmaking trajectory has been an unusual one when compared to his peers, for he first cut his teeth making commercial comedy films, before moving into heavier, weightier genres in the past few years – something he claims is “the opposite path” to that taken by other Chinese directors.
“While others were directing more art-house dramas in the past, I was thinking that we were losing the audience, so I felt like I should create some commercial titles to draw the audience back to theaters,” says Feng.
“But later, when the Chinese film market was booming and all the other directors were doing commercial titles, I felt it was time for me to create some radically more art-house or dramatic films.”
But it is evident that audiences still love his varied works, for I Am Not Madame Bovary topped the Chinese box office when it was released last November. The film was also miraculously spared from the wrath of censors despite depicting the tumultuous relationship between a single Chinese citizen and the bureaucracy.
Feng, who has always been a vocal critic against the Chinese government’s film censorship, believes this is because of the comic relief available in screenwriter Lin Zhenyun’s novel, from which the film was adapted.
“Of course, we faced issues like censorship or regulatory issues,” says Feng. “And that is why a lot of directors don’t put their hands on such topics because they don’t want to find themselves in this kind of trouble.
“But those opinions are ones we cannot lose; the power of discourse, in terms of depicting a history – a certain kind of history – within the scope of China.
“Lin Zhenyun applied a very humorous way to write such a story; this mediates, or relieves, such tension. So the people who are in charge of censorship were less nervous about the topic.”
While one might assume that the director’s long-standing streak of domestic success would have given him more leeway in creative expression by now, Feng begs to differ.
In fact, he says directors like himself or Zhang Yimou (Raise The Red Lantern) are subject to even stricter censorship of their works, because their films are “believed to be more influential” than those of young, rookie directors.
Therefore, the way to get around censorship is simply having a co-operative working relationship with one’s producers, advises Feng.
“There are some moments when you have to stick to your ideas, while in others you have to come to compromises and this is what you do with your producers – sometimes insisting, sometimes compromising. If the producer tells me I should change 20 points in the film, I say I will change 10 of them, but not all 20 of them,” he says.
Trust Feng to know best. The director has never shied away from tackling sensitive subjects – from the Henan famine back in 1942 to the 1976 Tangshan earthquake in blockbuster Aftershock – and in I Am Not Madame Bovary, his subtle critique of Chinese society could not be clearer.
In fact, Feng says he intends to continue working on projects closely related to the “development of Chinese society” in the future.
The past 40 years in China after Mao Zedong’s death have brought about many “prominent and significant” changes, and these changes continue to inspire the kind of stories he hopes to tell, he adds.
There are some moments when you have to stick
to your ideas, while in
others you have to come
– Feng Xiaogang
For the director’s upcoming project, though, it will be a blast back to his own past. He has just concluded filming an adolescent drama, titled Youth, set to be released in China on October 1.
Youth follows the lives of a group of teenagers who join an army art troupe, and their trials and tribulations as they enter adulthood.
Feng recalls how the film was inspired by his own memories of working in the army theater when he was 20 years old.
“It is a film about my youth, about the memories of my youth. When I remember those times, I become nostalgic. I know that things are not as beautiful as they are in my film, but with the passing of time, memories take up a happier shade, so I have wanted to make this film for a long time and now I’ve succeeded,” he said.
“Maybe directors always make movies on something about their youth, but they do it much earlier. I started late, only after the age of 60,” adds Feng with a chuckle.