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January 02, 2006

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress

Xiao Cai Feng
Dai Sijie - 2002
Empire Pictures DVD

Dai Sijie's film from his autobiographical novel slowly found its way to limited U.S. theatrical distribution and finally to DVD. I remember seeing a clip of the film almost three years ago when it was nominated for a Golden Globe Award. This is one of those times when the Hollywood Foreign Press would actually prove to have better taste than the Academy Awards, especially considering the consistently awful choices for Best Foreign Language Film. For some reason, Balzac did not get distribution in the U.S. until this year, even though the novel has been a critical and popular success. Even though the film is adapted from his novel, Dai, with co-screenwriter Nadine Perront, made several changes so that Balzac is not an exact filmic transcription.

The film takes place in 1971 during the Chinese cultural revolution. Luo and Ma, the seventeen year old sons of intellectuals have been sent to a remote mountain village to work and live among the peasants for their "re-education". The community that Luo and Ma are in is so remote that most villagers are illiterate, and anything unknown is likely to be from the bourgeoise West. Ma explains that Luo's "toy", a violin, is a musical instrument, and the sonota by Mozart is actually "Mozart thinking about Chairman Mao". After literally stumbling upon the discovery of a group of young women bathing, one of the girls, the seamstress (no name is given) tells Luo and Ma about a secret cache of Western books. The books are found, and the boys secretly read Balzac, Dumas and Dostoevski as well as secretly read to the seamstress. Additionally, the seamstress learns to read.

Dai very obviously states through his characters that his theme is the transformative power of art. Still one is intrigued because of the portrayal of a controversial part of Chinese history, and because Dai explores how culture is presented and valued. Dai is interested in the meaning of the narrative, whether it is in a novel, a film or a folk song. One of Ma's responsibilities is to see a movie in the larger village and report back to local community. The movie is usually a tale of the proletariat from North Korea. The seamstress comments on how Ma's retelling of the movies, which eventually become disguised retellings of the forbidden novels, are better than the movies themselves.

Dai's novel was originally written in French. The romantic triangle was created by Dai for the novel. A filmmaker before he became a novelist, Dai's story bears some resemblance to Jules and Jim in showing a relationship that is only sustainable as a trio. Luo and Ma's education of the seamstress not only frees her from viewing life only from the confines of her tiny village and the teachings of Chairman Mao, but also gives her a sense of freedom from her "liberators". The film concludes with the remote villages being submerged by a new artificially created lake. It's as if to say that while China may try to hide or wash away parts of its troubled past, it is the role of artists to preserve history.

Posted by peter at January 2, 2006 12:16 AM


I loved the novella, and it sounds as though the movie is very faithful to it. I had the fortunate coincidence of reading Dai's book immediately after reading La Cousine Bette for the first time, so it that added a great deal to the experience. The book is extremely funny in parts, not something you'd expect from a prison-camp setting. Since the book did quite well here, as usual I am flummoxed by the lackadaisical distribution. On the other hand, thanks for pointing out that the Golden Globe guys (all, what, 86 of them?) actually spotted a winner.

As for the best foreign film Oscar, I lost all respect for it the year Au Revoir les Enfants lost to Babette's Feast. (Though they managed to make some excellent choices in earlier decades, don't you think? The bad foreign film winner seems to be a recent phenomenon.)

Posted by: Campaspe at January 2, 2006 04:38 PM