Feng Xiaogang’s ‘I Am Not Madame Bovary’ Clears China Censorship

Originally scheduled for release on September 30, Feng Xiaogang’s black comedy will finally hit cinema screens on November 18.

I Am Not Madame Bovary (我不是潘金莲), the highly anticipated social satire by veteran Chinese director Feng Xiaogang, has officially passed China’s film censorship board with some cuts and will finally hit screens on November 18.

The black comedy starring Fan Bingbing, which was lauded for “its ambitious rendering of a woman’s Kafkaesque struggle as she takes on the Chinese legal system” at the Toronto International Film Festival, has had its own Kafkaesque journey to the silver screen in China.

The film was originally meant to be released on September 30 but was abruptly and mysteriously rescheduled at the last minute. Rumors swirled, even on state-controlled media, that the film had failed to get censorship approval.

In the satirical comedy, A-list star Fan Bingbing plays a cafe owner caught in the bureaucratic maze of the Chinese legal system after she is swindled by her ex-husband.

Citing an unnamed marketing representative for the film, local film news website Mtime said the film passed the censorship board as late as the end of October, contradicting reports that suggested it had been approved earlier.

The same marketing representative would not be drawn on what specific changes had been made to the film but did indirectly suggest there have been some cuts by adding “there aren’t any major differences” [to the film] in comments to Mtime.

An exact run-time for the film — which could be compared to its original length in the versions that have already screened at multiple overseas awards ceremonies — is still under wraps.

In September, the film scooped top honors at San Sebastian International Film Festival, taking the top Golden Shell prize and the best actress gong for Fan’s role. That was on the heels of it winning the International Federation of Film Critics’ prize in Toronto.

The film marks an artistic departure from Feng’s normally more commercial fare, with its use of a perfect circular frame for certain scenes, and its casting of the glamourous Fan as the film’s unflattering looking peasant lead.

The last-minute release schedule change not only meant potentially millions of RMB worth of marketing efforts were wasted, it also scotched any hope of the film being eligible to run as China’s foreign-language Oscar contender this year.

After the release date change, Feng took to the popular messaging app WeChat to suggest the change was to avoid competition during the busy end of September-early October National Holiday period.

“We’ll move the movie to whatever period is the coldest [least competitive],” the director has been widely quoted as saying on WeChat — a comment many queried at the time due to the fact a marketing rollout — including advertisements on bus stop shelters and in cinemas — was already underway.

Feng’s argument, which was not taken seriously by industry watchers at the time, makes even less sense now that officials have opened the floodgates for several high-profile Hollywood films in November.

Since those early ambiguous comments, Feng has been more direct in his statements about the release schedule change, denying that it has anything to do with the censorship board.

“There were way too many films scheduled for release in the national holiday period,” Feng is quoted as saying. “The film board discussed it with everyone and asked if the dates could be spread out a bit. Who wouldn’t want to budge a bit? We said move us to whenever.”

Ang Lee’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (比利·林恩的中场战事), which is co-produced by China’s Bona Film Group and Studio 8, debuts a week earlier than Bovary in China on November 11.

Deepwater Horizon (深海浩劫), Lionsgate’s disaster drama, is another last-minute addition to the autumn release schedule, coming out on Tuesday, November 15, three days before Bovary’s release.

Meanwhile, Harry Potter spinoff Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (神奇动物在哪里) will screen a week later on November 25, after its day and date with North America release was pushed back from November 18 — a date that  would have put it directly head-to-head with Bovary.

— Additional reporting by Qingyuan Wang.