Mon, May 20, 2002 - Page 11 News List

Romantic boyhood memories of a Chinese filmmaker

Dai Sijie is a filmmaker and author of `Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress,' a largely autobiographical look at the profound effect literature has on a group of Chinese youths during the Cultural Revolution. Dai has turned the story into a film

By Yu Sen-lun  /  STAFF REPORTER , IN CANNES, FRANCE

PHOTO: YU SEN-LUN, TAIPEI TIMES

Like many exiled or oversea Chinese authors such as Gao Xingjian (高行健) or Ha Jin (哈金), Dai Sijie (戴思杰) creates his art in a second language, earning acclaim in the Western world. But back in China, those works are almost always banned for failing to conform to the Communist Party line. But, for his part, Dai has long forsaken politics.

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress (reviewed in Taipei Times on Oct. 21 last year) is the best-selling novel by Dai, who is perhaps better known as a filmmaker.

"It's nothing but a love story," he said in an interview with Taipei Times.

Originally written in French and published in more than 30 countries, Dai has brought this partly autobiographical story of his boyhood memories to the screen. The film was selected as the opening film for the Un Certain Regard section at this year's Cannes film festival.

Last Thursday evening, the opening day for the Un Certain Regard selection of films, a blue carpet was rolled out in front of the Claude Debussy Theater and the air was filled with Chinese Cultural Revolution propaganda songs. "We are the little red guards of Chairman Mao... We travel from the mountains to praise him..." -- a bizarre scene to behold on the French Riviera.

Two faces familiar to Taiwanese audiences -- Zhou Xun (周迅), the starlet of Suzhou River, and Liu Ye (劉燁), who won a Golden Horse Best Actor for the film Lan Yu (藍予) -- star in Balzac, which is set in the 1970s in a mountainous village in Sichuan Province. Two young men, Duo and Dai, labeled as sons of "reactionary intellectuals" are sent to a far-flung outpost of Maoist re-education where 99 percent of the village is illiterate. There they are forced to carry manure for the farms and work in the coal fields so that they might "learn from the brave working class," as their re-education chief tells them.

The only fun activity they are able to think up is to play Mozart on Dai's violin, creating their own lyrics in praise of Mao Zedong (毛澤東).

They also try to tell clever folk stories to amuse the villagers and the chief, which buys them a precious few hours of freedom to go to the nearby town to watch melodramatic propaganda films from North Korea. They'd then return to their village and retell these stories to the culture-starved locals.

One day they meet a very pretty girl in the village who is a seamstress. "She's a bit rustic. I want to change her," Luo tells Dai. Stealing a whole suitcase of banned books from a good friend, the two began to court the seamstress through daily reading and storytelling sessions of Flaubert, Tolstoy, Hugo, and the most compelling to them, Balzac.

The power of literature in the film is like magic, and breathes life into both the trio's relationship and the imagination of the whole village. The chief smiles more and productivity increases. In this village full of steep cliffs, hills and valleys, they read and tell stories in a secret cave where they hide their books.

More than 20 years pass. Dai becomes a violinist in France but returns to the village, which is being evacuated due to the construction of a large dam on the Yangtze River. The village is about to be inundated, but Dai is desperate to find the little seamstress, who abruptly left when she fell in love with Luo.

"There was a real love story," Dai said of the autobiographical aspects of the story, "but not as romantic. The stealing books part is true and the experience of reading stories to farmers is also true."

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