On Screen China: ‘I Am Not Madame Bovary’ Finally Arrives

Doctor Strange may slide to second in the face of the long-awaited Feng Xiaogang black comedy’s release.


Doctor Strange’s two week-run atop the box office charts in China comes to an end on Friday with the release of director Feng Xiaogang’s (冯小刚) black comedy, I Am Not Madame Bovary (我不是潘金莲).

Disney/Marvel’s Strange, starring Chinese favorite Benedict Cumberbatch as the titular neurosurgeon-turned-sorcerer, will lose more than half of its screens, squeezed out by both Feng’s film, which is receiving a massive 40 percent screen share, and the Sino-French co-production The Warriors Gate (勇士之门), which will occupy 18 percent of Friday’s showtimes.

Given its strong word of mouth, however, Doctor Strange should be able to haul in a robust RMB 65-70 million (US$10 million) second place finish behind Madame Bovary. Fellow holdover Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk won’t be as lucky; it’s losing 75 percent of its screens after Chinese audiences largely shunned the latest Ang Lee flick on opening weekend.

I Am Not Madame Bovary (我不是潘金莲)

 China Distribution – Huayi Brothers (华谊兄弟传媒股份有限公司)

US Distribution – Well Go USA

China’s most commercially successful director, Feng Xiaogang follows up his 2013 hit,  Personal Tailor ($115.2 million) with a satirical look at Chinese bureaucracy in I Am Not Madame Bovary. Based on a novel by award-winning author and frequent Feng collaborator, Liu Zhenyun (刘震云), the film focuses on a woman’s battle against the never-ending red-tape of China’s judicial system. In addition to the talent behind the camera, I Am Not Madame Bovary also features a who’s-who of bankable Chinese talent including Fan Bingbing (Skiptrace – $133.2 million), Guo Tao (Breakup Buddies – $188 million) and Da Peng (Jianbing Man – $186.4 million).

I Am Not Madame Bovary has had something of a tumultuous journey on its way to Chinese cinemas:  lauded by critics at international film festivals in Toronto and San Sebastian in September, the film was slated for release on the mainland during October’s weeklong National Day Festival, one of the hottest moviegoing periods on the calendar. But censorship woes forced distributor Huayi Brothers to push the release date back into the usually quiet month of November.

Subsequently, Chinese film regulators, attempting to inject some energy into 2016’s slumping box office, stuffed November full of Hollywood imports including the Harry Potter spinoff Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, also scheduled for November 18 in a head-to-head battle with Madame Bovary.

In the end, Fantastic Beasts delayed its release one week, allowing the reportedly unedited version of I Am Madame Bovary to dominate screens this weekend. Regardless, the film’s box office potential has been somewhat weakened by its move to the currently overcrowded situation.

Feng Xiaogang’s box office draw cannot be underestimated — even as an actor he helped Mr. Six capture $137.7 million last year — but Madame Bovary’s offbeat humor and an unconventional filming style in which nearly 80% of the film is seen through a circular keyhole-like frame will most likely put off general audiences that had flocked to his more accessible blockbusters like Cellphone, Aftershock and Back to 1942. 

Still, mature moviegoers will flock to cinemas this weekend and be rewarded with one of the most provocative and unique films to come out of mainstream Chinese cinema in ages. I Am Not Madame Bovary is among the few Chinese films to score well with Western critics — it has an 82 percent Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes — and Well Go USA is distributing the film this weekend in select North American cities simultaneous with its China release.

Look for I Am Not Madame Bovary to score RMB 185 million ($27 million) in its debut this weekend and RMB 520 million ($75 million) total.