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
~~ Jules Brenner