Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress is pretty. Visually pretty, that is, even if the storyline is less so. Lots of panoramic shots of vast farmlands, monstrous waterfalls, and red lanterns. Lots of red lanterns. So even though there’s a lot going for Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress besides being pretty, as soon as the credits roll, its “prettiness” is the only thing that sticks.
Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress is set during China’s tumultuous Cultural Revolution. The film begins with Ma (Ye Liu) and Luo (Kun Chen), two college students who are sent to a poor farm village for “reeducation”. The boys’ love for Western literature and modern technology was frowned upon by the locals who consider such interests anti-Chinese.
Since the boys spend most of their reeducation days doing rigorous farm labor, their only pleasure is found in chasing the young village girls. They both fall especially in love with “the little seamstress” (Xun Zhou), the nameless daughter of the village tailor.
At first The Little Seamstress seems very intelligent. She’s clearly more clever than the rest of the villagers. But as soon as the boys catch her dismantling an alarm clock to see how it works, they both know she’s plagued with ignorance and she’s hungry for knowledge.
To “save” her from her intellectual misery, they decide to read forbidden Western literature to her in hopes that she would grasp an understanding of the larger world around her. The Little Seamstress not only loves the Western literature, but is transformed by it, especially by authors like Honoré de Balzac (hence the title).
Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress is the English teacher’s wet dream. The film makes a clear distinction between those who read literature and those who don’t (the ones who don’t being the assumed ignoramuses). Although films about the power of literature are nothing new, this film’s emphasis of the power of literature, albeit western literature, set in relation to the, Cultural Revolution is refreshing.
Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress could have easily slipped into some strong political undercurrents, but this isn’t that kind of film. It’s a celebration of sorts; a love poem to the arts and its influence on society. For example, the transformation of the villagers begins when the boys play them their first violin piece or reenact a foreign film for them. These small acts have major impact on the peoples’ happiness. Combine this optimism with the solid acting and brilliant, swooping shots of the countryside, and the result is a truly beautiful film.
Yet still, it doesn’t quite work. Why? Well, for one, its goal is questionable. It’s easy to walk away from this film thinking, “French literature is awesome!”, but perhaps the director was squeezing more information into those simple shots than the audience realizes. It’s obvious the two protagonists are advocators for Western culture and literature, but, another layer of the storytelling seems to say, are their opinions “right” for China?
In one scene, both boys discuss how proud they are with The Little Seamstress when she loses her peasant accent. The scene is quick and before the audience can digest the implications, the movie is over.
It’s also difficult to feel much empathy for the two main characters. Although they’re roles are well-acted and the characters are seemingly interesting, they still come across as rather one-dimensional; more like walking symbols than real people.
For the first time Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress is being released for Region 1 DVD players, probably to gain an audience outside of France. Unfortunately, the disc is extremely bare with only a short director bio as its extra. Some additional information on the book on which the story is based, Dai Sijie’s first novel, translated from the French into more than 30 languages, would’ve been nice. As it is, I am left feeling ambivalent. This is a really pretty movie, yes, but its resonance is already fading.