Cinema Signal:
Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress
The book by Dai Sijie

The Three Gorges Dam and China's Energy Dilemma.
An article from the Journal of International Affairs
Available for download
. "Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress"
(aka, "Balzac et la petite tailleuse chinoise")

A seductive adventure into a primitive netherworld where natural attractions overrule dictatorial banishments. Drawn from Dai Sijie's novel and based on his own experience in a Maoist re-education camp in the remote mountains of China, its bitter sweet romance is lyrical and affecting.

In the 1970's, at the time of China's "Cultural Revolution," two teenage boys from the city, Luo (Kun Chen) and Ma (Ye Liu) are found guilty of potential mental misconduct. The evidence for the charge is that they are sons of "reactionary intellectuals." Taking no chances that such offspring might one day rise up to challenge the government leadership, they are semtenced to a brain washing period in a backward and completely unsophisticated village on Sichuan province's remote mountain slopes. They will perform all the laborious tasks the villagers do to maintain their meager crops, including the manual transport of human waste as fertilizer.

Overseen by the party-indoctrinated headman, who puts the party line above all other considerations until it comes to an aggravating personal need, these city boys are plunged into a dramatic change to their accustomed pace and level of awareness. First off, the headman puts them in a state of shock when he flings a book into the fire. Their violin is next for the fire, until Luo explains its use and Ma plays a tune they call, "Mozart is Always Thinking of Chairman Mao.

For the villagers, the two boys from town are once-in-a-lifetime curiosities at whom they can only stare in awe and titter in jovial illiteracy. But, even as they joke about their physical frailty, they are duly respectful of their knowledge of the outside world. The "errant" boys fit into the rhythms of their new home and learning flows in both directions. The discovery of nubile young women populating the area is a fine compensation for the ostracism they have readily accepted as a proper fate.

When they attend the cinema in the nearest town, and return to the village to "tell" the movie, their value rises more than the primitives care to admit. The entire village population is mesmerized by the stories and images they conjure. These mountain-dwelling folks are hearing such things for the first time in their culturally impoverished lives.

When the fair and slender daughter of the renowned tailor enters the picture, all else takes second place in their thoughts and actions. Generally considered the most beautiful in the area, the seamstress (Xun Zhou) is kittenishly seductive and intensely curious. To satisfy her hunger for knowledge, the boys stage a theft of a village nerd's cache of forbidden literature from the west to read to her. They then spend long hours in their secret cave with the seamstress, introducing her to literature and arousing hormonal hunger. In her awakening, physical consummation of sexual feelings with Luo is balanced with the sexy seamstress's literary passion, especially for the works of Balzac. Not at all the "re-education" effects the judicial beurocrats had in mind.

In a last act that is more an epilogue, writer-director Sijie takes us to modern times years later to show the men the boys evolved into, and what their experiences and emotional involvements with the seamstress and her village may have meant to their formation.

The poetry of the piece takes the harshness of inept political thinking and turns it into great literature turning lives around wherever it comes in contact with an intelligent mind. A strong chord of sentimentality pervades the piece, but charm, sensual gratification and interesting characters tend to blunt its influence. Its lyricism will resonate nicely among the patrons of lighter art house fare. The images of the landscape border on the exquisite.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  


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