Fri, May 02, 2003 - Page 20 News List

A romantic look at self-discovery and love in China's hinterland

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress,' which has been banned in China, has been embraced by international audiences for its romantic treatment of love amid adversity

By Yu Sen-lun  /  STAFF REPORTER

Zhou Xun, right, enjoying a summer of love with Chen Kun, in a romantic journey of self-discovery.


Filmmaker Dai Sijie (戴思杰) has taken a somewhat different route in his cinematic career from that of most other film directors.

He first went to France to learn film making in the 1980s and made three pictures in nine years, struggling all the time to finance them. Which is why he then became an author, writing in French about his boyhood memories in China.

The novel was a best-seller, bringing him fame and enough funds to make another film. So, he returned to filmmaking with an adaptation of his own novel.

The result is as pleasing as the book. Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress was the opening film of the Un Certain Regard section at last year's Cannes Film Festival. Earlier this year, the film also represented France for Best Foreign Language film at the Golden Globe Awards.

Apt acting and elegant camera work transforms China's natural landscape into a story replete with touching episodes about the experience of two boys in the Cultural Revolution.

Unlike many films set during the Cultural Revolution, which mostly stress pain, trauma and distorted human minds, Balzac takes a different approach. Dai describes the re-education process almost as if it were a sweet memory, despite the hard labor that government doctrines forced him to undergo.

Luo Ming (Chen Kun, 陳坤) and Ma Jian-ling (Liu Ye, 劉燁) are sons of doctors sent to the remote Phoenix Mountain in Sichuan, to be "re-educated" by peasants. They carry buckets of manure all day and have to work in the poorly-equipped mine pit.

Later, however, their dull and dirty lives are transformed when they meet the Little Seamstress (Zhou Xun, 周迅), the so-called most beautiful girl in the village.

Film Notes

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress


Directed by: Dai Sijie

Starring: Zhou Xun, Liu Ye, Chen Kun

Running time: 110 minutes

Taiwan Release: today

Language: In Mandarin

with Chinese subtitles

"I want to change her from an earthy village girl to a sophisticated woman," Luo Ming says. The two of them begin to teach her how to read and introduce her to literature.

The two young men are lousy mine workers but excellent story-tellers. In order to keep his violin (originally perceived to be a bourgeois toy and best thrown away by the village chief), Ma plays a Mozart sonata and convinces the villagers the piece is called "Mozart is always thinking of Chairman Mao."

The pair are asked by the villagers to tell stories about the latest movies shown in town (North Korean and Albanian films only, China's best friends in the 1970s). But instead of repeating tedious propaganda, they suprise with an Alexander Dumas story, "Once upon a time in Albania, there was a man called, the Count of Monte Christo ?."

Then, Luo and Ma steal a case of banned books, including "subversive" novels by Honore de Balzac, Flaubert, Dostoevsky and Gogol. They even find a secret cave where they can read to the Little Seamstress.

It does not take long for a love affair to start, framed by idyllic pastoral scenes of stunning green hills, bubbling streams and romantic caves.

The Little Seamstress may have a simple peasant accent, but she proves bright enough to play at a love triangle involving the two young men masterfully.

Through Balzac, the three discover their passions, ideals and dreams for life. As a result the Little Seamstress decides to get away from a rustic life and a summer of love to go to the city.

Zhou Xun once again shows off her command of the fairy-like, pretty-little-girl role, reprises from Hong Kong Hollywood and Suzhou River. But somehow she's not convincing as a simple village girl.

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