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Where EAST meets the Northwest

LITERARY LASS. Pictured above is the Little Chinese Seamstress (played by actress Xun Zhou), whose name is never given in the film, listening intently to a reading of the words of Balzac. (Photo courtesy of Empire Pictures)

From The Asian Reporter, V15, #49 (December 6, 2005), page 7 and 20.

Film shows freedom despite Cultural Revolution

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress

Directed by Dai Sijie

Distributed by Empire Pictures

By Jeff Wenger

The period of the Cultural Revolution in China was a dark one, a great leap backwards that left some 30 million dead. From the mid-1960s into the 1970s, the members of the bourgeoisie were "re-educated" in the fields and the mines of the vast interior.

From that wretched experience came Dai Sijie’s autobiographical novel Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress. The slender book was so overwhelmingly popular upon its release in English in 2002 that today no used bookstore stands without a copy.

This year brings the movie version to these shores and, shot in China, it is lovely to behold. It is breathtaking to see steps cut into the side of a mountain that leads to a high lake. (You mean those peasants did that without special effects?) The actors are handsome and watchable without being perfect Hollywood heartthrobs. Ultimately, though, a French author, dead over 150 years, is the star here.

Luo (Kun Chen) and Ma (Ye Liu) are a couple of city boys sent into the Phoenix Mountains for re-education because of the sins of their "reactionary intellectual" parents. The country folk toiling there are illiterate and have little knowledge of the wider world. In their first moments in the village, Ma nearly has his violin destroyed but plays a sonata that the boys claim is called "Mozart is Always Thinking of Chairman Mao." He’ll play it again before he’s through.

They meet a renowned tailor’s granddaughter and helper, the Little Seamstress (Xun Zhou.) Both of the young men are dazzled by her. They filch a bundle of outlawed books authored by all the biggies of the nineteenth century — Stendahl, Dumas, Kipling, Dostoyevsky, and, of course, Balzac.

In due course the boys are sent into town by the village headman to watch a public showing of North Korean and Albanian films, tasked with returning and relaying the stories to everyone else. Ma and Luo are imaginative and entertaining souls and they powerfully relay the stories, holding their audience’s attention. Ultimately, the boys find the proletarian melodramas unsatisfying and begin relating the plots of the books they read in secret.

Luo begins reading to the seamstress, hoping to lift her out of her ignorant, illiterate state. Circumstances have kept the seamstress in the dark, but she is interested; she has seen airplanes and wonders what the world is like elsewhere. Suddenly, after experiencing the novels, the villagers become civilized people with ideas as well as feelings. The tailor grows concerned by his granddaughter’s dramatic changes, but he is won over in a splendid way by Dumas and begins to introduce subversive nautical styles into the community’s worker garb.

As literature and the world of ideas trickle through the minds of the villagers, it begins to feel like the world has changed. Not entirely changed, however, because Luo and Ma are sent back to the mine and grueling labor.

Both Luo and Ma love the young woman, but, after a bout with malaria, Luo has his love reciprocated by the curious seamstress.

Dai takes a surprising turn near the end, rocketing the viewer into the present and a Three-Gorges-Dam-like project that will flood forever the villages where the boys spent this part of their youth, and then back to the early ’70s, and then back again.

The ending is hauntingly beautiful, and haunting is exactly the right word.

That having been said, Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress is a pleasant diversion, but isn’t great. It moves somewhat slowly in the middle. Moreover, the horrors of totalitarianism have been conveyed better elsewhere, as have coming-of-age tales.

But it is valuable, always valuable, to be reminded of the way that a life of the mind, channeled creatively and sensitively, can enhance human existence, and Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress certainly does that. This film is authentic enough and sweet enough and is absolutely worth your time and attention.