Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress

Oct 19, 2005 at 12:00 am

Though set in the early ’70s during China’s Cultural Revolution, this film isn’t a gritty look at that horrendous period in history. Director Dai Sijie, who also wrote the novel the film is based on, lived through those times, and is less interested in focusing on the persecution (and sometimes flat-out murder) of writers, artists and anyone else who showed “bourgeois tendencies,” and more intent on recapturing a period of his youth that he sees through a gloss of nostalgia.

Luo and Ma are two young men who’ve been sent to a remote and backward mountain village to be given a Maoist “re-education,” which is mainly being forced to do tedious hard manual labor. They’re smart enough to know that the whole thing is somewhat farcical, but also smart enough to go along with the program. When accomplished violinist Ma plays a Mozart sonata for the peasants — most of whom don’t even know what a violin is — he tells the local leader that the piece is called “Mozart is Thinking of Chairman Mao.”

The duo’s boredom is alleviated when they discover another young man sent for re-education has a stash of forbidden books hidden in his hut, mostly 19th-century European and Russian novels. When the two fall in love with a young girl from a neighboring village, they woo her by reading to her from the forbidden books. The young seamstress shows an instant affinity to Balzac in particular.

The film’s main flaw is a treacly sentimentality, giving the impression that a certain amount of vérité is being sacrificed in search of a wider audience. The movie is most interesting during the early scenes when Luo and Ma are adjusting to village life and the various absurdities demanded of them by the Cultural Revolution. Once the film settles into a three-way love story between the two and the seamstress, it also settles into an altogether more conventional film.

The most appealing aspect is the romantic notion that books can change lives. Luo and Ma’s interest seems as much the result of intellectual curiosity as it is an appreciation of Balzac’s storytelling abilities. They’re also impressed that the books deal with more or less ordinary people, unlike the royal personages that dominate classical Chinese literature. For them, this is a revelation.

But the seamstress’ attraction to Balzac is more enigmatic; you have to take it on faith, along with a few other things in this big, beautifully photographed and somewhat mushy film.


In Mandarin and French with English subtitles. 7 and 9:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Oct. 21 and 22; and 5 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 23. At the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-3237).

Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].