Empire Pictures // 2002 // 111 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Adam Arseneau (Retired) // May 21st, 2007
"Sometimes a book can affect your whole life."
Based on the semi-autobiographical work of Chinese author Sijie Dai, Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress is visually splendid, spiritually enriching, and bittersweet, and as profound a cinematic experience as you will find on the shelf of a video store.
Set amidst the backdrop of the tumultuous Cultural Revolution in China, Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress tells the story of two educated city teenagers sent to a small rural mountainous region for Maoist re-education. Like thousands of other children of a middle-class educated family, the Maoist government determined that such youths were bourgeois and needed "re-education" in struggle of the working class, forcibly shipped off into the mountains of Sichuan into work camps to experience peasant living first-hand. Here, the boys would be kept until they were "ready" to sing the praise of Chairman Mao and integrate properly into the worker's paradise of China.
In their grim surroundings of work and poverty, Luo (Kun Chen, The Door) and Ma (Ye Liu, Curse of the Golden Flower) find themselves completely isolated and alienated from the life they knew. Creature comforts are few and far between. Books are forbidden, save for Maoist-approved propaganda pieces. It is a bleak and difficult existence, save for one shining light: the granddaughter of a local tailor, known only as the Little Seamstress (Xun Zhou, The Banquet). She is beautiful and curious about the world outside her village, and the two boys see it as their destiny to "educate" her in the ways of the world.
When Luo and Ma discover a hidden suitcase full of banned books by Western writers, they begin reading the books to the Little Seamstress, who thirsts for knowledge and information. But her grandfather is petrified of the influence the boys are having over his granddaughter, worried that the new ideas within will cause her nothing but heartache and desires for sites unseen...
Deeply laden with personal memories and subtle allegory, Balzac is a soft and gentle film. It is a testament to the artistry of the filmmaking and passionate writing in Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress that can turn a subject like the Cultural Revolution into a moving piece of cinematic beauty since, in reality, the Cultural Revolution was kind of messed up. (Apologies to my readers in China, of whom I assume I have many.)
Balzac moves at a subtle and profound pace akin to the rural village in which the film is set. Slowly and deliberately, it crafts a tale of beauty in the face of repression, of hope and love despite all odds, and the experience of carrying big buckets of feces on your back. That last one is a mixed blessing if ever there was one. Having been forced into the mountains by political events beyond their control, Luo and Ma learn little about the glory of Chairman Mao and the Workers Revolution, but learn much in the ways of love, life, and living an existence full of meaning and hope. With little to do but perform chores and slave in the copper mine, Luo and Ma spend all their free time with the Little Seamstress, each falling in love with her innocence and sensuality. But the love is a bittersweet thing and extremely fragile. Intimate and introspective, the film is more than a bit self-indulgent, but beautifully so, as if being graced by an invitation into private moments. The story resonates even more powerfully with the realization that the tale is true, at least in part.
In Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, writer Sijie Dai was able to adapt and direct his own work onto the silver screen, a rare treat for a writer. Like the protagonists in his story, Dai was also from an educated middle-class family and was sent to a reeducation camp during the Cultural Revolution. Needless to say, the man speaks from experience. The story itself is based partly on Dai's own experiences, real and imagined, expertly penned and adapted to screen. As a director, Dai has a subtle and natural vision behind the camera, stripped-down and minimalist, allowing the natural austere beauty of rural Sichuan to express itself, with little camera movement or directorial flair to clutter the frame.
Despite the heavy influence of politics in the subject matter (admittedly, some basic understanding of Chinese history and events helps immeasurably appreciate the film) Balzac is surprisingly neutral on the topic of passing judgment on the validity of the Revolution. Like its protagonists, the film simply speaks about what it knows -- the experiences, triumphs, and failures of two young teenagers, with little desire to preach or push and agenda. Luo and Ma never ask why they were sent for re-education, nor do they openly rebel or try to escape; they deal with it quietly and without question, finding their own ways to express themselves without causing trouble. The Little Seamstress represents a challenge and curiosity to them both, a puzzle to be unlocked. Bright and beautiful, she represents the pure essence of rural Chinese life, routed in routine and isolation for centuries in perfect bliss, yet expresses endless desire to know the world outside her mountaintop village. She is their salvation, in a sense, but such innocence is a fleeting thing.
Towards the end of Balzac, the film juxtaposes images of the boys later in life, grown men in a modern China coming to terms with their memories and experiences of childhood. In the modern China, development and damming of the Yangtze River has flooded much of the landscape they once reluctantly called home, forever destroying a way of life kept intact for centuries. Just like such modernization has destroyed the idyllic rural life in China forever, the boys reflect on how, in a sense, they destroyed the idyllic purity of the Seamstress. At first, they desire to simply "educate" her, confident they are doing a good thing, even though they give little thought to the inevitable consequences of empowering such a curious and strong-willed person. In doing so, they bring an end to something pure and innocent that is now irreplaceable. Like China itself freed from the shackles of repression and cultural isolation, once the genie is out of the bottle, it can never again return to the life of the past. The influence of the "reactionary stories" upon the small rural village is inspiring, but also irrecoverably changes the village and ushers it into the modern age, a bittersweet but inevitable side effect of time and progress.
Such profound ruminations are laced throughout Balzac, almost too many to name, on love, life, technology, maturity, music, and literature. It is a shame the film did not make more of an impact internationally, for it truly is worthy of great accolade and appreciation by the masses. In terms of its triangular cast, Balzac has fine performances, especially from its leading lady. Xun Zhou captivates as the Seamstress, a ravishing vision of innocence, charm, and beauty. She only gets more alluring as the film progresses, which makes things all the harder at the end (which should be obvious but I shall not spoil). Both Kun Chen and Ye Liu do a solid job in their roles, but their characters are muted and introspective who often simply stare into space rather than emote.
Balzac is presented in an anamorphic transfer letterboxed down to 2.35:1, with a picture that is excessively soft and hazy, almost dreamlike. While it is possible that the look of the film is a deliberate creative choice on the part of the filmmaker, I cannot help but be suspicious. I mean, even the nasty, gigantic burned-on white subtitles are hazy and indistinct. The crisp backdrop of the Chinese countryside is muted and made blurred by the lack of sharpness, which disappointed me to no end. Colors are slightly muted and not quite as vibrant as I would have liked to see. Black levels are a bit washed out, but solid overall.
In terms of audio, a simple 2.0 stereo presentation is all we get. The lack of solid Surround sound options (especially when considering the film was equipped theatrically with a DTS track) is a letdown. The score alternates between classical violin pieces and traditional Chinese melodies, leaving little in way of ambient beyond the gentle wind in the trees and the ever-present crickets and birds.
Extras are thin: only a director's bio, a still gallery, and a trailer or two. This is a letdown. The technical aspect of this DVD is by no means a failure, but it certainly fails to do justice to a film of this caliber. Truthfully, Balzac deserves a much better technical presentation. And did I mention the subtitles were burned on? I mean, who still does that these days?
As gentle as the story is, pacing can admittedly be an issue in Balzac. The story is ethereal and beautiful, yes, but also runs nearly two hours. At times, the only thing more tedious than being relocated into the mountains of China and forced to perform menial labor all day is watching a movie about it.
Spiritually enriching and visually splendid, Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress is a delicate paper lantern of a film; a beautiful piece of filmmaking worth appreciating equally for its beauty and fragility. This one comes easy to recommend.
Good stuff. Not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Empire Pictures
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Mandarin)
Running Time: 111 Minutes
Release Year: 2002
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Director's Bio
* Stills Gallery