Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress
2002Director: Dai Sijie
Cast: Chen Kun, Liu Ye, Zhou Xun
evolutionary peasants will never be corrupted by a filthy bourgeois chicken!” says the chief, happily stuffing cookbooks into a fire. The leader of a tiny village in Communist China, he wants to destroy all traces of Western influence. A beloved violin nearly goes into the flames as well, until its owner plays a sonata written, he claims, as Mozart sat musing over the virtues of Chairman Mao. The chief thinks for a moment. “Mozart is always thinking of Chairman Mao,” proclaims the benevolent man, and all is well.
One might expect Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, a story of life under an oppressive regime, to be a bitter screed—something along the lines of Reading Lolita in Tehran, the popular memoir of an Iranian professor who portrays her opponents in shades of black. Little Chinese Seamstress, however, is a gentle tale of mild conflicts, chock-full of humor and wry observations. The most power-hungry leader is merely hilarious, but idealistic heroes may be the real oppressors.
This lack of anger certainly cannot be passed off as a lack of immediacy. Director Dai Sijie (who adapted the screenplay from his own novel, written in 2000) spent four years in a re-education camp, an experience that probably pissed him off. His semi-autobiographical work follows two young men, the children of reactionaries (a despised group not to be confused with revolutionaries, of whom Mao approves). The boys are sent to the countryside to have their Western sympathies driven out of them, preferably as they lug buckets of shit around.
Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress is the story of these men and their attempts to hold fast to their intellectual curiosity and freedom. It is also the story of a little Chinese seamstress (apologies for my repeated use of this lengthy title; tellingly, the boys make a point of never learning her real name), an adorably naïve girl whom the young men vow to bring out of ignorance. They do so through literature, after discovering a contraband stash of novels by Dostoevsky, Kipling and, naturally, Balzac.
Now, this premise instantly recalls an endless parade of kiddie movies, which yap about the magical powers of reading with bright animation and cartoonish sound effects. And there are some missteps in this vein, such as when the heroine proudly sports her first bourgeois bra, before glibly and randomly stating, “The savage has only feelings. The civilized man has feelings and ideas.” Happily, the remarkable young actors save the show. Indeed, they telegraph their gigantic, repressed emotions, but they do so with an utter lack of self-consciousness.
Their story, far from being a paean to literature, transforms into something much, much more cinematic. In one scene, the seamstress examines a clock with a mechanical rooster inside, eternally pecking. She demands to know what’s going on, and one boy, smiling dreamily, tells her that a real rooster sits inside the clock. Uh oh. Chivalrous condescension much? Indeed, freedom does not come bursting through the door when one cracks open a book. Rather, it depends on the give-and-take of human relationships, whether those of a friendship, a romance, or an entire society. As these layers unfold, a complex narrative structure, elegantly handled, tinges the story with alternating shades of nostalgia and youthful urgency.
Quite sensibly, Dai Sijie grants his rustic tale precedence over the sophisticated novels. For all the repeated images of transfixed faces grinning goofily into the pages of a book, the real character development flashes on the screen for a few brief seconds, with the actors standing a good distance from the camera. In fact, all of the visual work is remarkably restrained, except for rare liberating moments, such as one kiss, during which the camera is recklessly hurled through a doorway. Such artifice has its place, yes, but only when juxtaposed with artless life in the countryside. And the classic books themselves effect change, not as the characters pore over them by candlelight, but instead during slow, psychological journeys—never beheld, only glimpsed—until we realize that a person has finally, irrevocably, been set free.
Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress is now available on DVD.