Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress is a coming-of-age tale set during China's cultural revolution. It is a story about youth and love and courage, but mostly it's about the transformative power of books.
Luo (Chen Kun) and Ma (Liu Ye) are teenagers who have been sent into the country in the '70s for re-education. As the sons of "reactionary intellectuals," these young men are sent to the mountains to learn to live with the general population. This entails endless labour, such as working the fields and in the mines.
Despite huge changes in their lives, Luo and Ma adjust to their new surroundings with a combination of wit and work. To play violin, for example, they must pretend Mozart composed songs of the revolution for Mao. And they can read, which gives them an advantage over the villagers and a sense of their own small rebellion.
An old tailor in the region is much-respected. When he visits the village with his beautiful granddaughter (Ziiou Xun), both boys fall in love with her. They dub her the Little Chinese Seamstress and try to teach her to read.
Meanwhile, the head of the village lets these two "bourgeois intellectuals" tell stories to the others, and Luo and Ma "tell" the movies they have seen in the city.
And then they discover that another young man being re-educated has a secret stash of books -- and books by European authors, at that. During the cultural revolution such things were prohibited. Their Little Chinese Seamstress suggests they steal the books.
Done. And so the three friends discover Balzac. And Dickens. And Dumas.
You could say it shakes their world.
Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress is a semi-autobiographical story from filmmaker Dai Sijie and is based on his best-selling first novel. Dai was himself sent to Sichuan for re-education between 1971 and 1974 and, after Mao's death, finished his education and eventually moved to France.
There is an innocence at the centre of Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress and it's all about the characters. The film is often funny and always delightful, but bittersweet overall for its theme of lost youth.
The film is in Cantonese with English subtitles.
BALZAC AND THE CHINESE SEAMSTRESS * * * *
What: Drama directed by Dai Sijie
Starring: Ziiou Xun, Chen Kun
Where: Rainbow Cinemas, Galleria London; part of Rainbow Cinemas' Art and Alternative Film Series
When: Sunday, Monday and Wednesday, 3 p.m. and 7 p.m.
Tickets: $7.50; any six films in the series, $25; call 434-3073