Judge Not Laughing, Calls ‘Madame Bovary’ ‘a Shallow Insult’

Hit comedy elicits varied opinions on the movie’s central legal case.

The award-winning and headline-grabbing comedy I Am Not Madame Bovary tells the story of a woman fighting the inefficiency of China’s legal system, but a Chinese judge apparently thought the movie was nothing to laugh at, calling its plot an insult to her profession.

In the movie by renowned director Feng Xiaogang, protagonist Li Xuelian, played by Fan Bingbing, one of China’s most famous actresses, petitions several Chinese officials to overturn a fraudulent divorce. She seeks the favor of a local judge, the president of the court, and the county mayor; she even travels to Beijing in search of help. But in each case, the officials give her the cold shoulder.

Li Xiaomei is a judge in eastern China’s Jiangsu province and no relation to the fictional movie character. In a recent post to her public WeChat account, on which she regularly writes about legal issues, Li criticized the movie, calling it “a shallow insult to the intelligence of legal professionals” because according to her, a court would never hear a divorce case once an official certificate has been issued. She also said that the protagonist of the story should sue her husband for slander rather than petition the government.

Wang Liming, deputy director of the China Law Society, an official organization for academics in the legal field, wrote in a commentary published Thursday in party newspaper People’s Daily that Madame Bovary is a prime example of the need for China to improve its legal system.

Wang said that Li Xuelian relying on officials to overturn her divorce ruling is indicative of the fact that in rural China, guanxi, or one’s network of personal relationships, is still above the law. “For thousands of years, Chinese people have looked to just and incorruptible officials to solve their problems while not valuing the legal process,” he said.

The film’s director Feng said in an earlier interview that this was precisely his point. “Why does [Li] turn to government officials? This reaction is a product of the culture of cronyism: She believes that Chinese officials still control the courts,” he told People’s Daily. According to Feng, officials not facing their responsibilities should be seen as a kind of corruption.

Influential blogger Yang Ningyuan said the story resonated with him because he had once petitioned the Chinese government himself. Yang said Li’s case shows how some officials only care about their titles and not about solving people’s problems. “They want fewer people asking questions, but they don’t want to answer those questions,” he wrote.

The movie even caught the attention of provincial officials in Hubei, in central China. During a conference on Monday about cadres’ working styles, the province’s deputy party secretary said Madame Bovary is a good example of how minor issues can become big problems, and shows that there is a clear lack of trust between officials and the masses.

Film critic Han Haoyue said he thought Madame Bovary was actually understated. “This movie has criticized the Chinese bureaucracy more harshly than any other work of art in recent history,” he said, adding that, critical or not, it still implicitly favors the authorities.

Han said this apparent partiality could be the result of a behind-the-scenes compromise with media regulation authorities: “If the movie had not dealt with the system in this way, it might not have made it to the big screen at all.”

— A version of this article initially appeared on Sixth Tone.