Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress Review

Of Chinese origin, director Dai Sijie has been living in France since 1984. His first novel Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress was published in France in 2000, a semi-autobiographical story of two boys who have been sent down to be re-educated by peasants under Mao’s Cultural revolution. It won several literary prizes and, with its clear cinematic potential, it was obvious that Dai Sijie would adapt the novel to the screen himself.

Luo (Chen Kun) is the son of an once eminent dentist, Ma (Liu Ye) is a violinist, the son of a surgeon. Seen as intellectuals and reactionaries, they need to be re-educated by the peasants and are sent the village of 'The Phoenix in the Sky', where they work in the mines and in the fields. Starved of intellectual and cultural stimulus, the boys manage to obtain a suitcase of forbidden foreign books – a veritable treasure chest of classic literature full of novels by Dumas, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Flaubert. But it is the melodramas of Honoré de Balzac that touch them most deeply. Luo shares these reactionary thoughts with the Little Seamstress (Zhou Xun), the peasant daughter of the tailor from the neighbouring village, teaching her to read and hoping to improve her education. But the ideas and values he hoped to instill in the girl have unexpected consequences.

The power of art and culture to educate, enlighten and elevate the human soul is a theme that is particularly important to the current generation of Chinese filmmakers, as it would be to any generation who had been denied freedom of thought and expression in their formative years. This is superbly demonstrated in The Little Chinese Seamstress. The exoticism of French literature to a a peasant in a remote Chinese village fires the imagination to the extent that that the boys even copy passages onto the lining of their coats to be able to re-read them in private. Late-night clandestine readings of The Count of Monte Cristo even exercise influence over the old tailor, who introduces French and nautical elements into his designs. This cultural cross-pollination allows for some nice humourous touches, such as Ma’s renaming of a Mozart sonata 'Mozart thinks about Chairman Mao' in order to be able to play European classical music.

The performances of the leads are pretty wooden and even Zhou Xun, who captivated the viewer with her appearance in Suzhou River and made an impression with small parts in Beijing Bicycle and The Emperor and the Assassin, fails to make an impact here as the Little Seamstress. The best performance of the film belongs to the chief of the village played by Wang Shuangbao, and the amateur dentistry that is practised on him amuses and makes you wince at the same time. The luscious widescreen photography, awesome scenery and strong narrative however are strong enough to make up for failings in the performances and casting.

The film sticks closely to the director’s own novel, with only a couple of minor adjustments. Four-eyes has a lesser part in the film, which is disappointing as there is a spark and a rivalry between his character and the boys whenever they are together. The loss of the episode of gathering of traditional songs for Four-eye’s literary mazagine is probably well-advised for the adaptation to the screen as this would bring it much too close to Chen Kaige’s Yellow Earth, which is set during this period and depicts similar themes. The ending of the film is superb, bringing the story up to the present day it achieves a sense of closure that was missing from the novel, without changing its tone.

Similar to their release of Zhou Yu’s Train last month, Media Asia’s effort here is hit and miss. At times, particularly in outdoor scenes, the anamorphic 2.35:1 transfer contains strong, vivid colours and apparent clarity, but it is actually quite grainy and there are some shimmering aliasing artefacts visible. Indoor and night-time scenes often look under-exposed, the murky brown blacks flattening out tones with poor contrast.

The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is effective although slightly lacking in dynamic range. The film has an excellent sound-design with voices prominent on the centre channel and effective use made of the surrounds for effects and atmosphere.

English subtitles are optional. There are only a few minor errors but generally it is a good idiomatic English translation.

There are no substantial extras on the DVD. The Story contains the same blurb that is on the back of the DVD case, in English and Chinese. The Cast & Credits is just a listing with no information or filmographies. The Theatrical trailer is presented at 1.85:1 anamorphic with no subtitles.

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress is a French production, but its use of a principally Chinese cast and crew and the director’s own first-hand experience of Mao’s Cultural Revolution tie it very closely to other Chinese films on the same subject, and it stands up well against them. The DVD is certainly a typical Hong Kong affair, more than adequate but there is clearly some room for improvement here.

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