Reap What You Sew
"Seamstress" appearing in the title of Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress seems jarring in politically correct today, even while calling up Hans Christian Anderson or Dickens; and, the actual hamlet for Cultural Revolution re-education featured in the film seems too difficult and remote -- the stand-in one in mountainous interior Sichuan province is Shangri-la. Even for 1971, the otherworldly innocence of its residents strains Western credulity. Apart from unwise final minutes of Asian Institutes of Dental Medicine, European string quartets, hydroelectric project flooding on the Yangtze, and camcorder TV viewings, this movie feels like a fairy tale.
Autobiographical reminiscence but admittedly fiction, too, and part portrait of the generation who “lost ten years of their lives and got behind the times,” part meditation on friendship and love, and part homage to the “much pleasure [and] love of books,” Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress/Balzac et la petite tailleuse chinoise is co-scripted by director Dai Sijie from his novel of the same name. A prize-winning best-seller in his adopted France, the book has been translated into twenty-five languages, although not yet into Mandarin or Cantonese. Indeed, Beijing’s cinema censors forced toning down of characters they felt lampooned old-fashioned Communist types and sought unsuccessfully to have the book’s Western literature transformed into classical Chinese works.
Nostalgia, not for that era of intellectual and emotional smothering, but for youth itself, the story relies on the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution for “authenticity and credulity” but, like the acknowledged values of the masters it invokes -- Mozart, Beethoven and Tchaikovsky; Flaubert, Tolstoy, Dumas père, Victor Hugo, Stendhal, Kipling, Gogol, Dostoevsky and, of course, Balzac -- points to what Thoreau called “the treasured wealth of the world and the fit inheritance of generations and nations.” As deprived peasants are exposed to culture, and young men and women to love, the soul flowers.
Like the author-director, guilty of urban, bourgeois, therefore reactionary, upbringing, nineteen-year-old friends Ma Jai Ling (Ye Liu) and dentist’s son Luo Min (Kun Chen) are dispatched on the two-day journey to near inaccessible Phoenix Mountain, there to be brainwashed while working at primitive copper mining and farming.
Among their possessions, a rooster-faced alarm clock is a prodigy, a cookbook a formula for “reactionary banquets,” and a violin a suspicious toy until Ma is coaxed to play a sonata which he assures the local head (Shuangbao Wang) is titled “Mozart Is Thinking of Chairman Mao.” Later, the two young men quite innocently spy on local girls bathing in a river but are truly smitten when the famous tailor (Zhijun Chung) from Big Eye in the Sky makes rounds with his granddaughter, Little Seamstress ((Xun Zhou).
Unique in their literacy, the two so delight the locals with stories that they are sent to a town to watch approved Albanian and North Korean films and re-tell them to neighbors. Innovatively curious enough to fashion wooden models of biplanes that have flown over, Little Seamstress is their friend whom Luo teaches to read while Ma plays his violin, and all participate in the re-creations of the movies they say are about Edmond Dantes in 1815 Marseilles and by “Albanian director” Balzac, spiced by shredded rice-husk “snow.” Books banned in this Fahrenheit 451 past, they steal a cache of European classics from now successfully reprogrammed Four Eyes (Hongwei Wang), hide it in a Book Grotto, and read to the girl until the wee hours.
Nothing gold can stay, not even in Mao’s heaven on earth -- imagine Tom Sawyer and Becky Thatcher five more years down the road -- and, without jealousy, physical yearning causes complications, an end to innocence, parting, and adulthood. Friendship and feelings survive from a politically, socially and personally difficult period to bathe in grown-up memories, which “can easily delude.”
Too long for its own good at a hundred-and-eleven minutes -- the “epilogue” present might have been trimmed -- and sometimes straying south of the border between sweet and saccharine, Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress nevertheless gracefully captures the purity of innocence in the midst of no-matter-what, the Eden that gave birth to the individual and to his/her society.
(Released by Empire Pictures in Mandarin and French with English subtitles; not rated by MPAA.)