Pan Jinlian… it’s been almost a decade since I heard that mysterious name for the first and only time.
Suzhou, Jiangsu province, two women lower their voices while they observe the carefree stroll of a young woman along the lake shore. There’s nothing particularly remarkable about her but something strange about her appearance draws everyone’s attention to her. She’s wearing a simple, sleeveless, light-coloured dress with a brown belt around her waist. Her high-heeled shoes and golden lame look very worn. It is maybe the only thing that looks out of place, more suitable for a dance hall than a Sunday stroll. Her partially-hidden face under her hat… yes, that hat is what definitely gives her that unusual appearance!
It is a men’s hat, with a flat brim, a flexible, pink felt hat with a wide black ribbon.
The two women carry on talking while looking at the girl. As I pass by them I just barely hear what seems to be a name spoken in a whisper, “Pan Jinlian”. I assume that it’s a name because of the tone used and the gesture of discreet understanding shared by those two women sitting beside the lake. Some men also turn their heads when they pass by the girl. They don’t say anything.
I’m not Madame Bovary is the last production by Chinese director Feng Xiaogang presented within the Official Section of the San Sebastian Film Festival. I confess that on this occasion I barely paid attention to the synopsis of the story; the presence of the beautiful Fan Bingbing as the main character and the announcement of her visit to our city for the presentation of the film were enough of an incentive to plan my list of films and purchase a ticket.
The event took place last Sunday. The Kursaal Auditorium was ready for the big event and the red carpet was already awaiting the procession of stars and camera flashes. It is highly likely that the largest concentration of Chinese citizens in a single location of our small region was opposite the auditorium’s doors. They all wanted to see Fan Bingbing up close, there were screams and running each time one of the organisation’s elegant black cars pulled up after coming from the Maria Cristina Hotel. At last the film’s entire team emerged. Fan Bingbing was also there. She shone with that style and glamour that harks back to the old days of Film.
The crowd broke into a frenzy and the running and clapping continued inside the hall. The curtains open, the lights are dimmed.
Without warning, on the screen, that forgotten name is there again… Pan Jinlian. It’s funny how some film titles are translated outside their countries of origin; I’m not Madame Bovary is actually I’m not Pan Jinlian. During the presentation of the story there is an explanation of the curious meaning of the Pan Jinlian character in Chinese literary tradition: she is the archetypal “Femme fatale” and one of the most notorious villainesses of classical Chinese culture. A woman of dubious morals, perhaps spurred by a passion for life like Flaubert’s heroine… In the film, a humble woman, Li Xuelian, bravely interpreted by Fan Bingbing, is abandoned by her husband and unfairly and publicly branded as a “Pan Jinlian”. This is the start of one of those adventures that end up going beyond the limits of human endurance, an administrative battle through the years in search of justice. Perseverance as the only way to recover what was already hopelessly lost.
When the session is over and we are leaving we run into the film’s team, Fan Bingbing passes right in front of us… the movement of her marvellous white lace dress, so different to her interpretation of that humble woman, made the air before us shimmer, bringing back to my memory the breeze of a faraway lake and a certain name whispered as another girl passed by.