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12 Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress (Balzac et la Petite Tailleuse Chinoise) (2003)

updated 9th April 2003
reviewer's rating
Four Stars
Reviewed by Jamie Russell

Dai Sijie
Dai Sijie
Nadine Perront
Xun Zhou
Kun Chen
Ye Lui
Cong Zhijun
110 minutes
Soda Pictures
9th May 2003
World Cinema

"Revolutionary peasants will never be corrupted by a filthy bourgeois chicken!" declares a local Communist party leader near the beginning of "Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress", tossing a cookbook into the fire. As opening scenes go, it's one that sums up everything that writer-director Dai Sijie's film is fighting against.

Arriving in the Phoenix Mountains for "re-education" during the Cultural Revolution, bourgeois city boys Ma (Ye Lui) and Luo (Kun Chen) discover a world dominated by petty rivalries and blinkered ignorance.

It's a community in which even their violin comes under suspicion - at least until they convince the local radicals that a Mozart sonata is a political mountain song ("Mozart is Thinking of Chairman Mao").

After months of toiling the fields, the boys discover a cache of foreign books and try to do some re-education of their own. They read the novels of Flaubert, Gogol, and Balzac to the local seamstress (Xun Zhou), whose thirst for uncensored knowledge makes her willing to risk her life for art.

A French-Chinese production (rather appropriate, given the subject matter), Dai Sijie's film - based on his own best-selling autobiographical novel of the same name - presents an overly simplistic vision of art as salvation that threatens to turn its three leads into ciphers rather than characters.

Yet, building on its carefully constructed scenes between Ma, Luo, and the little seamstress who they both fall in love with, this is a beautiful paean to a time long past.

Reliving his youth, Dai Sijie finds both joy and sadness in the upheaval of the Cultural Revolution - sadness in the misery of those years of strict indoctrination, but uplifting joy in the realisation that change can bring freedom.

As the film's awkward, closing coda proves, though, sometimes love means letting go.

In Mandarin and Cantonese, with English subtitles.

Find out more about "Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress (Balzac et la Petite Tailleuse Chinoise)" at
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