Balzac And The Little Chinese Seamstress Movie Review
Set amid lush mountains in an isolated region in China in the early 1970s, Dai gives us a gently paced semi-autobiographical account of two teenage boys, Ma (Ye Liu) and Luo (Kun Chen) who arrive at a Maoist camp for "re-education." Because they are the offspring of the "reactionary" elite -- the very class that Mao sought to purge during his Cultural Revolution -- the boys are prescribed a daily regimen of lugging buckets of shit to fertilize the local rice fields alternated with tedious shifts in a copper mine. Through Dai's eyes, though, what ordinarily might be a rather bleak portrayal of suffering is viewed through rose-tinted lenses. The Communist Committee chief of their village (Shuangbao Wang) is, true to fashion, a by-the-book ideologue. He wants to come off as a hardliner, but he's won over easily enough by Ma's claim that the Mozart lieder he plays on his violin is, in fact, a tribute to Mao. This would be fine if it led to a more complex dynamic between the chief and the boys, but this cheeky repartee goes no further.
The world is certainly idyllic, especially after the boys chance upon the daughter of the village tailor -- a girl who goes by the sobriquet the Little Seamstress (Xun Zhou). She is uneducated but pretty, and her simple charms and free-spiritedness immediately attract Ma and Luo. In one of the movie's more stirring moments, the Seamstress gives voice, however fleetingly, to the spirit of adventure we feel most keenly in our youth when she mentions how the sight of an airplane passing overhead while she's working in the fields sparks within her a curiosity of the outside world. After the boys stumble upon a trove of 19th century European novels -- some of them by the titular author and all banned by China's revolutionists -- Luo begins reading them, one by one, to the fascinated Seamstress. It's both a courtship ritual for Luo and the Seamstress as well as a form of escape for these oppressed teenagers. Indeed, more than on any other level, Balzac succeeds as a paean to the power of books in freeing up the human imagination regardless of class, race, sex, or political constrictions.
These admirable sentiments, however, do not compensate for the movie's utter lack of dramatic tension -- sexual, political, or otherwise. Beneath the surface of longing, lusting, and dreaming, Dai imparts little depth to his characters -- at least in their cinematic incarnation. At no point in the boys' Maoist rigmarole do we feel even an undercurrent of existential terror -- that is, a sense that the consequences of violating the village chief's rules would be severe or even threatening. Apart from perfunctory depictions of manual labor, the boys share in what feels like an "extreme" summer camp adventure. Similarly, the romance between Luo and the Seamstress lacks obstacles and complications. When the Seamstress must cope with an unplanned pregnancy in Luo's absence, leaving Ma to come to her aid, Dai means to convey something of Ma's burgeoning love for the girl, but he shies from delving into this terrain. This is not an appeal for obvious and expository dialogue (which runs roughshod throughout Balzac anyway) but, rather, a wish that Dai had the cinematic acumen to use performance and composition more expressively. The viewer aches for the wordless and prolonged glance, the mysterious gesture, and the visual metaphor--that syntax of silence hinting at worlds of yearning surely residing deep within these characters. Dai's approach is, unfortunately, heavily prosaic -- a too-literal dramatization of characters living through an intense phase in their lives in an intense time, pleasing to the eye but not to the heart or the soul.
Aka Balzac et la petite tailleuse chinoise.
Now can you fix my pants?