balzac and the little chinese seamstress (2003)


director: dai sijie

xun zhou, kun chen, ye liu

If it seems amazing that a lush, romantic film can be set during the grim years of China’s Cultural Revolution, it might be useful to remember that China is eagerly reinventing itself, a momentous change that gets ignored amidst news of war and disaster.

Director Dai Sijie was sent to live in the harsh rural provinces during Mao’s anti-bourgeois revolution of the early 70s, later writing an autobiographical novel about the period, a bestseller that has been translated into 25 languages - except Chinese. Still, Dai was able to get permission to film in the stark, beautiful mountains of Sichuan, and has managed to depict a period of brutal, totalitarian social engineering as nonetheless ripe for impetuous, youthful rebellion.

Leaving aside this dubious proposition, Dai’s film is as watchable as you’d expect a well-financed French co-production to be, a story of political punishment and peasant virtue familiar to fans of recent Chinese cinema, but somehow overlaid with the sort of sensuous, visually toothsome production values we associate with mainstream French films.

Chen Kun and Liu Ye play two middle-class city boys sent to a mountain commune for “re-education”, which mostly involves back-breaking labour in the mines and fields. They fall in love with the Little Seamstress, the pretty granddaughter of the local tailor, merely the most charming of the village’s abundance of pretty girls.

As the seamstress, Zhou Xun is as charming as she needs to be, and willful enough that she’s happy to be “re-educated” by the boys, who use a stolen suitcase full of French novels to expand the horizons of her imagination. As a character, however, the little seamstress never becomes much more than a symbol, and since French aesthetic values dominate the film as much as French literature dominates the dreams of the three young people, Zhou ends up symbolizing that vaguest of things - beauty.

When the film abruptly tumbles toward its conclusion, the little seamstress is suddenly jettisoned from her mountain home into the dubious world of the big cities, where her fate is unknown. It’s a trite, deeply unsatisfying ending, which hits the ground before the story has a chance to coalesce into much more than the writer/director’s memories, prematurely and unhappily forced to account for themselves.