Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress

     To my knowledge, there are only a handful of filmmakers who have also pursued careers as
novelists, and vice versa. Neil Jordan immediately springs to mind.  I’m sure there may be others,
but suffice it to say that it’s a rare breed. Even rarer are those who translate one of their own novels
to the screen. Norman Mailer did it with
now we can add Chinese-born Dai Sijie to the list.

   In the late 1990s, Dai Sijie’s film career was stalled; although he had directed three films, none
was a major success. Having settled in France in 1984, he opted to write his first novel in French,
although the story was decidedly Chinese. In fact, it was semi-autobiographical. Between 1971 and
1974, in the last throes of the Cultural Revolution fomented by Mao Zedong, the teenage Dai was sent
to a re-education center in a remote village of China.

     BALZAC AND THE LITTLE CHINESE SEAMSTRESS was a best-seller in France and
was translated into over 25 languages. But the novel was banned in China, and, although he was allowed
to film in his native land, the movie adaptation is also banned there.

     When it came time to translate the novel to the big screen, Dai naturally opted to do it himself,
and the resulting film is an enjoyable and charming tale of romance, friendship, and the transformative
power of literature. (It was that last aspect which got the book and movie banned by the Chinese
government; the idea that literature – especially Western literature – would affect a female Chinese
peasant was an anathema.)

     The film version of the novel has been playing the festival circuit and the film earned a 2003
Golden Globe nomination for best foreign language film. Now, thankfully, this lovely movie
can be seen by a wider audience as it begins a commercial run in the United States.

   Ma (Ye Liu) and Luo (Kun Chen), the teenage sons of reactionary parents are sent for
re-education, which essentially means being stripped of their belongings and forced to perform
menial labor like carrying waste for fertilization and working in a rundown mine. The boys are
smart enough to convince the village’s leader (Shuangbao Wang) that Ma’s violin is worth saving,
especially after he plays a Mozart sonata and Luo convinces him that it was written with Chairman
Mao in mind. Because the boys can read, they are allowed to view films shown in a local cinema
– mostly propaganda from North Korea and Albania – on the condition they recount the stories
to the villagers.

     Both boys fall in love with the granddaughter of the local tailor, known only as “the little
seamstress” (wonderfully played by Zhou Xun, who may be recalled as the mysterious woman at
the heart of
SUZHOU RIVER). The trio begin to socialize and, when they uncover another resident’s
stash of outlawed books, bond over Western literature.

     Having been an English major in college and a bibliophile from an early age, I can easily testify
to the power of literature – how it can open one up to new worlds and new ideas. As Luo and Ma
take turns reading Kipling, Flaubert, Dostoyevsky, and particularly Balzac to the Little Seamstress,
she undergoes a change. The boys also expand their storytelling to her grandfather and, inspired by
The Count of Monte Cristo, the tailor is moved to design clothing inspired by the novel, replete
with fleur de lys and nautical symbols. The books also inspire the Seamstress to make a decision that
has long-lasting repercussions on the two young men. Even 30 years after the events, she continues
to haunt them both.

in China, is a welcome treat in a summer overstuffed with terrible movies. Clearly, a labor of love for
writer and director Dai Sijie, it is well worth seeking out.

Rating:                           B+
MPAA Rating:              NONE
Running time:                110 mins.

                                           Viewed at Magno Review Two.
©  2005 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.