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Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress

A publishing success throughout the world (except China, where it’s yet to be issued), Dai Sijie’s autobiographical novel reaches the screen adapted and directed by the author, who’d actually trained as a filmmaker in his adoptive France before the meteoric acclaim for his writing. Based on Sijie’s own teenage experiences during China’s Cultural Revolution in the early 1970s, the story follows two young men wrenched from their reactionary big-city parents for re-education in remote Sichuan province, presumably on the basis that carrying buckets of excremental fertiliser up a mountain each day would swiftly buck up their bourgeois ideas. Ma (Liu Ye) and Luo (Chen Kun) are fairly canny with it however, the former keeping hold of his violin by persuading the village chieftain of Mozart’s inspirational dedication to Chairman Mao, and the pair keeping their spirits up thanks to a craftily uncovered cache of forbidden Western literature. As the title suggests, both find themselves falling for a local tailor’s daughter (the elfin Zhou Xun, also seen in Suspicious River), while their covert immersion in the world of Cousin Bette opens up new vistas of the imagination which will affect the fates of all concerned.
In outline, this undoubtedly prompts the suggestion that it’s pandering to smug Western cultural imperialism, but the film’s lightness of touch, authenticity of milieu and evident sincerity mean that such notions fail to hold sway for very long. Whether it’s a matter of Balzac, Mozart or bawdy peasant ballads, Sijie defends the right of artistic expression, and the enrichment it brings, in the face of unyielding state ideological repression. Thankfully though, his film avoids any hint of preaching as it weaves a personal thread of romance, laughter and suspense into the wider fabric of recent history. Wang Pujian’s lovely score, adeptly fusing occident and orient, perfectly complements the action as sunny remembrance shades into bittersweet reflection.Trevor Johnston.
(France-China, 2002. English subtitles. Colour. Dolby digital stereo. 116 mins.)

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