Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress
1. Reviewed by Lau Chee Nien 2. Comments by Wong Lung Hsiang
Director: Dai Sijie
Writing Credits: Dai Sijie, Nadine Perront
Cast: Zhou Xun, Chen Kun, Liu Ye, Wang Shuangbao
Year Released: 2002
Runtime: 110 min
1. Reviewed by Lau Chee Nien
Rating: **½ (out of four stars)
The Plot in Brief: Two close friends who get sent to a re-education camp in the countryside during the Chinese Cultural Revolution are both smitten by the local tailor's granddaughter.
Ramblings: The film started off well and for the most part, is a luscious film. The cinematography is beautiful, and how can it not be, when the film is set against the backdrop of a beautiful, green and mountainous countryside? And when the three lead actors all good-looking and light up the screen each time they appears? The story and characters are also engaging and this helps the seemingly patchwork nature of the narrative flow seamlessly for the most part.
While the film is set against the backdrop of a historical event that has been noted to be bloody and tragic, it actually dwells entirely in the realm of lighthearted romance and playful comic moments. Although the main characters are forced to undergo a re-education program and lead a regimented kind of lifestyle, they remain largely youthful and free in spirit. The antics of the main characters are especially endearing, whether they are stealing a bunch of forbidden texts from a fellow comrade, or spicing up the stories from propaganda films as they narrate them to the village folks.
But while most of the scenes are memorable, the narrative appears to lack a distinctive focus. Some parts of the film feel like a teenage romance. Others highlight serious themes, such as the power of literature to influence and change people's lives. Most of the scenes also have little or no lasting effect on the rest of the film. The film does not follow any cause-and-effect patterns in its narrative. Sometimes, new scenes are introduced without resolving or exploring the promises and possibilities of previous scenes.
Still, this disjointed narrative is a distinctive style of the film and manages to remain mostly unintrusive. However, the moment the story jumps ahead 15 years in time, the film becomes jarring and the flaw of the narrative construction begins to show. Adult versions of the main characters are introduced and they are not as engaging as their younger counterparts. The shift also happens without any satisfactory closure to the prior scene focusing on their younger counterparts. And it begins to look like the filmmaker had overindulged in presenting the youthful scenes without giving enough thought to distinguishing the focus and structure of the film.
In the end, I was left wondering what the whole film was really about. If it was about the power of literature, I think it did not do enough to highlight the particular theme. If it was a coming-of-age story, it lacked a proper framework for the lives of the three main characters as it did not emphasis clearly the definitive moments in the characters' lives within the context of the film. Nevertheless, the film is at least memorable for the scenes of the three teenagers as they live carefree in the mountains of a beautiful countryside.
2. Comments by Wong Lung Hsiang
Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress is about Chinese intellectuals secretly reading banned foreign books during the Cultural Revolution. It is a theme that many other mainland Chinese films have touched but has not really focused upon. This film has been criticized for being unrealistic and over-romantic. I do not really mind this aspect, as I view it more as a modern fable, somewhat like Zhang Yimou's Hero. It serves as a vehicle for writer-director Dai Sijie, a French-trained mainland Chinese who wrote and adapted his first novel, to express his own ideology about how books and literature change civilization. However, I interpret the ending as somewhat dark, even though the three major characters manage to escape from the inhumanity of the Cultural Revolution. For example when the girl leaves the village I think this suggests her selling out her dream and principles. Singapore film buffs might be happy to see that here is a film that implicitly slams censorship, but the film has also portrayed the dark side of the anarchic consequences. Unfortunately, this beautifully-shot movie does not escape a Hollywood style of execution, but it is less annoying than Xiu Xiu. It received a Golden Globe nomination in 2002.