Two teenage friends, Ma and Luo (the attractive Ye Liu and Kun Chen), toil away in a mountain village, children of disgraced intellectuals. As part of their reeducation, they lug human waste up a mountaintop, push rocks in a mine, and occasionally visit a nearby town to watch North Korean films, which they then act out for their less mobile comrades.
Life for them is pretty boring, and they soon tire of the work, but they're smart enough to know that the whole thing is somewhat farcical, but also smart enough to go along with the program. A new world opens up for them when they discover that another young man sent for re-education has a stash of forbidden books – mostly 19th-century European and Russian novels – hidden in his hut.
They also two fall in love with a young girl (Xun Zhou) from a neighboring village and woo her by reading to her from the forbidden books. The young seamstress shows an instant affinity to Balzac in particular, and as Ma reads her the stories from the 19th century, the girl. the most appealing aspect of the movie is the romantic notion that books can change lives. Luo and Ma's interest seems as much the result of intellectual curiosity as it is an appreciation of Balzac's storytelling abilities. They're also impressed that the books deal with more or less ordinary people, unlike the royal personages that dominate classical Chinese literature. For them, this is a revelation.
Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress is a big, sweeping and grandly photographed film, but the narrative tends to wander, and oftentimes the movie lacks the dramatic heft to make it really compelling entertainment. Based in the book of the same name, the movie also lacks the subtleness of its source material, with Sijie transforming the book's brief time frame, tweaking countless plot points, and topping it all off with a titanic metaphor not found in his own pages.
The strength of the film is in the quieter scenes when the trio wonder what life is like outside. There's the thrill at the breathy inspiration found in their contraband Balzac and a moment of wonder when the Seamstress talks about seeing airplanes pass overhead and wonders "what the world is like elsewhere." Mike Leonard February 06.
Starring: Liu Ye, Chen Kun and Zhou Xhun
1971 and the Cultural Revolution is raging in China. Two sons of enemies of the people Ma (Ye) and Luo (Kun) are sent off to the countryside for re-education. Ma's father, a dentist, gave that reactionary running dog Chaing Kai Shek a filling in 1947. The boys are sent to the heart of Northern China's Phoenix Mountains to live and work. Scenery. The opening shot when they are trudging up the mountainside is spectacular.
The boys meet the Chief and the whole village crowds round? Not much entertainment in the mountains. The Chief rummages through their luggage and finds a violin. He is about to throw it on the fire as a bourgeois toy when Ma explains that it's a musical instrument. The Chief asks for music. Luo gives him a Mozart sonata. The Chief is underwhelmed. It's Mozart thinking about Chairman Mao the bold Ma says. Smiles. Happiness. Congratulations. No burnt violin.
So they settle into a life of drudgery. Lugging barrels of manure up the mountains. Digging for copper in a primitive mine. Boredom. Misery. Hard work. Then one day the Tailor breezes into town. A venerable old gentleman with a sewing machine. He brings his grand-daughter the Little Seamstress in person. Beautiful. Lively. Funny. Can't read.
The boys take it upon themselves to teach her to read and write. In doing so of course they'll get to know her better, or even better, intimately. The Seamstress tells them of a youth in the next village, the finely named Four-Eyes, who has a suitcase of forbidden foreign books. These turn out to be 19th century French classics by Balzac, Dumas, Stendhal.
So they start reading the books to the Seamstress. The Tailor is no mug though and suspects the boys are up to no good. He moves into their hut and becomes beguiled by the Count of Monte Christo. The Chief finds out. The Chief threatens to turn them in. The Chief has toothache. Oh Dear. Learn how to make your own sewing machine powered dentist's drill!
Verdict: Wonderful. The story is based on the experiences of Dai Sijiie who was re-educated himself in the seventies. If you can't see the DVD buy the book. Now available at all good bookshops!
It is shot in the beautiful Phoenix Mountains in Northern China and relates the experiences of two educated eighteen year olds Luo (Kun Chen) and Ma (Ye Liu) thrust into an isolated illiterate peasant community and both falling in love with the tailors daughter “Little Chinese Seamstress” sensitively acted by Xun Zhou.
This political re-education does not entail incarceration so the boys are free to move around, and this enables an exploration of how reading and education and the ideas learned from books improve the human condition.
The boys steal a suitcase of books (according to the Director in the interview nearly everyone in Chine at the time (including himself) stole forbidden books. Balzac is important to the Little Seamstress as she learns the role of women in western society, and the power beauty can give them. The chemistry between the two educated boys and the illiterate girl they educate is superbly enacted.
The drama unfolds at exactly the right pace shot in fine photography amidst glorious natural beauty. A great Chinese movie.