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Balzac et la petite tailleuse chinoise (Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress)

(2005) *** Unrated
110 min. Empire Pictures. Director: Dai Sijie. Cast: Liu Ye, Wang Suang Bao, Chen Kun, Xun Zhou, Chung Zhi Jun.

Here's a rare one: a novel adapted to film by the author himself. Sijie Dai wrote Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress in 2000, and shortly thereafter directed his own screenplay. Though the film is technically a French-Chinese co-production, the film cannot be legally screened in China. Like Joan Chen's Xiu Xiu: The Sent-Down Girl, Dai's story deals with the anti-intellectual reeducations of the Cultural Revolution.

In 1971, two bourgeois youth are forced into a Maoist rehabilitation camp in the mountains, where their talents—Ma (Ye Liu) is a violinist and Luo (Kun Chen) has medical know-how—become ironically in-demand. Both men fall in love with the tailor's daughter (Xun Zhou), who makes use of their shared talent of literacy by demanding forbidden accounts of foreign films and Western novels, especially those of Balzac.

On arrival, Ma and Luo get a harsh reception. The village chief roughly scutinizes their belongings, throwing even a cookbook into the fire ("Revolutionary peasants have no use for your bourgeois reactionary chicken!") and nearly sentencing Ma's alien violin—mistaken for a bourgeois toy—to the same fate. The violin is spared when Luo improvises that his friend can play a Mozart sonata, which he claims is called "Mozart is Thinking of Chairman Mao."

Though Dai has expanded his story with a 20-year time jump, it remains a simple and sentimental one, graced by its still-important exaltation of free ideas. Of course, there's nothing sentimental about the young men's new labors—like lugging fecal fertilizer into the mountains; Ma laments, "To think that this is the dump where we may spend the rest of our lives." But the mutual "re-education" of the men and the Little Chinese Seamstress (never given a proper name) awakens her to literature and possibilities, and them to first love.

In this sense, despite personal and romantic complications, the Sichuan Province remains magical to Ma and Luo, just as the city inconveniently seizes the Little Chinese Seamstress' imagination. The course of true love never did run smooth, but memory remains vivid as the years pass. Dai tapped his own memory of teenage reeducation for his poignant story, and his lovely images of the mountainside locations lead to a finale of stunning lyricism that is itself worth the price of admission.

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