Balzac And The Little Chinese Seamstress

Balzac And The Little Chinese Seamstress


Reviewed by: Angus Wolfe Murray

When dealing with the experience of living under Chairman Mao, especially during the Cultural Revolution, it is difficult to tell truth from nostalgia. Many movies have been made on the theme of young men from bourgeoisie backgrounds being dispatched to far flung rural wastelands to be "re-educated", as if intelligence was a capitalist bomb ticking in the body of the nation.

In feel and mood, Dai Sijie's film is more European than Chinese. Based on his autobiographical novel, it tells of teenagers Luo (Kun Chen), a dentist's son, and Ma (Ye Liu), a budding violinist, who are sent to a remote community in the Phoenix Mountains, where they carry barrels of human waste to the fields and crawl through cramped tunnels in the mines, pushing heavy trolleys.

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Almost in the style of Jules Et Jim, they make friends with the tailor's granddaughter (Xun Zhou) from a village the other side of the mountain and, eventually, fall in love with her. They discover a suitcase of banned foreign books, belonging to another "re-educated" middle-class boy (Hong Wei Wang), and just before he leaves to go back to the city, they steal it.

Luo and Ma read Dumas, Gogol, Dostoevsky aloud to The Little Seamstress, as they call her, but what she likes best is Balzac. Of course, it changes her and she begins to understand that compared to Madame Bovary her little life is bereft of everything but the roots of her being.

The film's strength lies in its simplicity and humanity. Sentimental in the way that makes your heart bleed, Sijie's skill as a writer and filmmaker casts a spell over the story, which is his story.

The loveliness of the location is matched by exceptionally attractive performances from the leading players. You might complain that they are too nice, but that would be churlish. As with all things bright and beautiful, there is a darkness before dawn and, as well as love and friendship, the film is about change, how it moves and shifts, leaving a residue of pain with the memories of what was and might have been.

Medical Note: up in the Phoenix Mountains, when you go down with suspected malaria, or any fever, for that matter, the villagers throw you in the lake "to stir up the blood." Afterwards, they take it in turns to beat you with a bendy branch. If you're lucky, you feel too ill to care and, if you survive, Chairman Mao, shit in a bucket and the Public Security Office have no fears for you any more.

Reviewed on: 06 Jun 2003
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Boys sent for re-education get the hots for local seamstress.
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Keith Hennessey Brown ****

Director: Dai Sijie

Writer: Dai Sijie, Nadine Perront, based on the novel by Dai Sijie

Starring: Xun Zhou, Kun Chen, Ye Liu, Suang Bao Wang, Xiong Xiaoi

Year: 2002

Runtime: 110 minutes

BBFC: 12A - Adult Supervision

Country: China/France


EIFF 2002

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