Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress
2002, NR, 110 min. Directed by Dai Sijie. Starring Zhou Xun, Chen Kun, Liu Ye, Cong Zhijun, Wang Shuangbao.
REVIEWED By Marrit Ingman, Fri., Dec. 9, 2005
In adapting his eponymous novel to the screen, Dai Sijie retains its breezy, amiable mien, complemented here by pretty Szechuan peasant scenery from Jean-Marie Dreujou (The Girl on the Bridge). Amidst the verdant countryside of Phoenix Mountain, circa 1971, Seamstress presents an uncharacteristically romantic look at the Chinese Cultural Revolution; compared to 1998’s Xiu-Xiu: The Sent-Down Girl, it makes rural bourgeois re-education look like a stint at summer camp, replete with skits, movie nights, and spying on the nubile village maidens as they bathe. The movie, like its source, is not apolitical – it’s just simply more interested in the workings of the heart and the power of art to transform and impassion the human spirit. Luo and Ma (Chen Kun and Liu Ye) are two citified intellectuals sent to learn practical skills and be purged of their reactionary upbringing (one is the son of a dentist, which will prove useful if politically inexpedient). Ma brings his violin but barely saves it from a bonfire, claiming that his favorite sonata is a Party anthem: "Mozart Is Thinking of Chairman Mao." Enter the village seamstress (Zhou Xun), a sardonic girl of 18 who inflames the boys’ Pygmalion complexes: When they discover a suitcase full of banned Western novels, they set about "transforming" her with beauty and culture, specifically Cousin Bette and Ursule Mirouët. Their political resistance otherwise takes the form of pranking the local Party chief (Wang Shuangbao) and re-enacting socialist movies for the villagers. The film’s satire is gentle – until its present-day coda, added in the screenplay, which is tonally at odds with the feel-good first two acts – painting the government with broad, buffoonish strokes. (The novel is banned in the People’s Republic not because its heroes consistently outsmart the Party but because its depiction of literature as life-changing is anathema.) It’s a charming work but not too deep; the love story is not terribly profound, just sun-dappled, sentimental, and nostalgic. Even a mine collapse is but as a temporary setback for the characters, and it provides a greater opportunity for reading. Cute and toothless as a kitten, Seamstress doesn’t inspire the same kind of fervent devotion its principals feel when confronted with art, but it does make a pleasant enough diversion.