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Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2003

The words will set you free

Balzac et la petite tailleuse Chinoise

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)
Director: Dai Sijie
Running time: 110 minutes
Language: Mandarin
Currently showing

"Balzac et la petite tailleuse Chinoise (The Little Chinese Seamstress)" has the makings of a full-fledged political story, set in a remote mountain village during the Chinese Cultural Revolution. But it is, in fact, an intensely personal tale of love as experienced by two urban teenage lads, sent to the mountains as part of a state-enforced "re-education" program. This means giving up their studies in the city to toil in the mines, carry dung-buckets to the fields, and look after cattle.

News photo
Chen Kun and Zhou Xun in "Balzac et la petite tailleuse Chinoise"

For many Chinese who came of age in the early '70s, this re-education program defined their youths. Some look back on it in horrified disgust, while others, like filmmaker/novelist Dai Sijie, find the memory tinged with nostalgia. For one of the protagonists in this movie (presumably Dai's alter ego), a city boy called Ma (Liu Ye), it's an experience he can't bury, one that still has the power to evoke emotions unmatched by any other incident.

Dai wrote the best seller (of the same title) which, with financing from the French, later became this movie. Anything that touches on the Cultural Revolution is banned in China, but under the auspices of French movie-making, Dai and his staff were able to assemble a brilliant cast and shoot most of it on location in the Phoenix Mountains.

The result is an interesting collage of French filming techniques and Dai's sensibilities, formulated in China and honed in France (where the director now resides). As such, it presents us with a love story wholly unlike the fare we've become used to in Chinese cinema.

Suffice it to say, the female character (played with coolly calculated excellence by Chinese TV star Zhou Xun) sports plenty of attitude balanced with ennui. She's sensual, mysterious and curiously unyielding. Neither a victim of political/familial circumstances nor a submissive pupil to a tutoring male, she's got the city boys Luo (Chen Kun) and Ma on leashes, and the ends softly clenched in her small, delicate hands.

This, despite the fact that it is the boys who first set out to seduce the "little seamstress" (as she was known in the village), by opening her eyes to the taboo Western world with which they are familiar. How? By reading to her. Hours and hours of whispered reading from such banned French classics by the likes of Balzac, Flaubert and Hugo, stolen from a fellow exile's suitcase, enter her ear. Then the seamstress's tailor-grandfather shrewdly discovers their secret and demands his own listening sessions. Thus the four become partners in crime, their hearts and minds crammed with French literature as they go about their daily work.

The tailor, taking hints from Dumas' stories, sews blouses with sailor motifs, frills and other unheard-of decorations -- to the delight of the village girls. Ma plays Mozart on his violin on the pretext that the song is called "Mozart Marches For Chairman Mao," giving everyone a taste for concertos. Luo presents the head of the village with his alarm clock, teaching him how to tell time and to stop work at a certain hour. Thus the winds of Western culture begin to blow in a village whose inhabitants have gone through life without reading a single book.

The two boys and the little seamstress have a wonderful camaraderie, but Luo is the one who makes the move and wins her personal affections. Ma steps aside to be the narrator and observer of their relationship. Luo is ecstatic that he's dating the best-looking girl in the province, but Ma knows there's more to her than prettiness.

What's missing here is the seamstress's point of view -- how she feels about Luo, the Cultural Revolution, the impact of Balzac on her sharp but untrained intellect. The audience and the boys are left hanging: What is she really thinking?

The answer hits us with a surprise, making us realize how emancipating but also how dangerous literature can be. Beneath the seamstress's impassiveness, the books have awakened a yearning for freedom and control over her own life. The boys had not bargained for such a drastic effect: For them, literature serves as a protective cocoon and an escape from their predicaments.

"The Little Seamstress" also recalls the powerful sensuality of hand-written words. Ma copies passages from Balzac into the lining of his sheepskin vest: tiny, intricate characters written with a calligraphy brush in the wee hours, by the light of a single candle. If the villagers were to find out, he'd face long-term imprisonment or worse. But still, he can't stop writing -- his love for literature and the seamstress seemingly flowing straight from his brush.

At that moment, Ma is, as Balzac once said, "feeling every sigh and tingle of life that coursed in his veins." In an age when we can read anything on screen with a single click, one can't help but wonder whether Ma isn't better off.

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