Set against the startling backdrop of China's mountainous regions, Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress takes place during the Chinese Cultural Revolution, where the government was intent on reeducating those intellectuals, artists and political dissenters. Filmmaker Dai Sijie has created a dreamy memory of hardship and adversity - part familiar Chinese parable, part familiar French romance - in which love of the radiantly beautiful, remote Chinese landscape outlasts bitterness at the Mao era's blinkered commitment to intellectual ignorance.
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.