Balzac And The Little Chinese Seamstress Movie Review

One has to wonder what gave Sijie Dai the impression that his screenplay for Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress -- an adaptation of his own best-selling novel and co-scripted by Nadine Perront -- was structurally sound. About three-quarters of the way into his story, and in one of the more baffling and ineffectual transitions to be found in recent movie memory, Dai jerks his narrative forward by two decades literally in the blink of an eye. The sudden shift only makes Balzac's weaknesses in the character department that much more glaring. As we watch his characters, aged now by makeup, and reminiscing about their teenage years after a long separation, we become aware of how superficial our understanding of them actually is. That awareness robs his flash-forward technique of any poignancy it might otherwise have had and points perhaps to his lack of fluency with the film form.

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?


Comments

pinecloud's picture

pinecloud

An invaluably sad but exceptionally beautiful work of art realistically depicting instability and mutability of all things in modern life. It's inevitably fluid like nature of human evolution between one époque to another influenced by new trends of individualism, nuclear family and globalisation in particular in this story. All these evolutions comes at a terrible costs to stability of our emotional life and collapse of traditional sense of community, almost always followed by a devastatingly painful separation.I can feel ethereal touch of Author's remnant filial love to his mother country China. It is easy to see that the Author was torn between his deep seated love for old China before the cultural revolution and Ambition for prosperity on his chosen land (France) at the moment of his life time decision making. This is something that not many understand unless you are forced to leave from your homeland and love ones for a cause. I have left Japan , Kyoto and a noble born beloved fiancée along with almost all things I perceived exquisite at that time for an ambitious cause. Now I am in a terrible state of homesick.Sentimentalism is further augmented by an outstanding soundtracks with his genius touch in a perfect synchronisation with emotion portrayed in screenplay. Since I have played harpsichord continuo accompaniment part of George Frederick Handle's tragic operas such as Alcina, Otone and Radamisto for student soprano singers during rehearsals in the past, I can readily feel Author's masterful quality of refined artistic mind in every scene. Author must be someone who understands classical and baroque music quite well. Pachelbel, Haendel, Scarlatti and Albinoni in particular. This is a second film that I bought for my collection of Dai Sijie's works. I am also a fan of Les Filles du Botaniste. It is such a sad film but exquisite work of art. I must admit that he is a genius of screenplay depicting moments of such a painful separation and innate strength of women. Every young woman has dreams of being swept up into a great adventure, of being the beautiful princess. Lamentably, when women grow up, they are often swept up into a life filled merely with demands, duty and responsibility. Many women are tired, struggling under the merciless pressure to be of a faithful servant, or a caregiver for children, husband or authoritarian father as seen in Les Filles du Botaniste. Who else can reproduce the sentiment so vividly on the screen with such poetic touch today? Perhaps no one else but refined humanist Director Dai Sijie! Julien Kujo, Palo Alto, California

5 years 1 day ago
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Balzac And The Little Chinese Seamstress Rating

" Weak "

Rating: NR, 2005

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