||Ray Bradbury meets the Cultural Revolution in Dai Sijie’s preciously-titled “Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress.” Like “Fahrenheit 451,” it’s about the transforming power of banned books under a totalitarian regime, but in this case the state isn’t some fictional Orwellian construct but communist China in the early 1970s, and the protagonists--based very loosely on Dai himself, who is here adapting his own semi-autobiographical novel--are two young men (Luo, played by Kun Chen, and Ma, played by Ye Liu), the sons of reactionary families sent to an isolated mountain village for “re-education.” Though they’re forced to work long hours in a mine and to carry barrels of foul water across treacherous terrain--all under the watchful eye of the single-minded Head Man (Shuangbao Wang)--their experiences turn out to have a distinctly idyllic side. Not only do they save Ma’s violin from destruction by convincing the village chief that the Mozart he plays is really a song inspired by Chairman Mao (the classical pieces that recur throughout, most notably bits of the Austrian master’s Divertimento, K. 334, add to the ethereal feel), but eventually they’re assigned to go watch North Korean movies in town and then re-enact them for the whole village in sequences of almost dreamlike magic. And Luo--the son of a dentist who once had the temerity to have Chiang Kai-Shek as a patient--becomes a local celebrity by reason of his skill in working on teeth (apparently an inheritance).
Even more importantly, both become infatuated with the lovely granddaughter (Xun Zhou) of the resident tailor (Zhijun Chung), to whom they read western--especially French--novels from a cache of forbidden books they retrieve from another prisoner’s suitcase. She’s quickly entranced with the stories--as is her initially angry grandfather, who goes so far as to insert imagery from them onto the garments he makes--and they in effect liberate her mind. Eventually the effect of the novels becomes so great that she wants something more than the village life--but not before an unanticipated pregnancy intervenes and the prospect of release from their sentence looms for the men. (There’s more than a touch of “Jules and Jim” in all this--appropriate, perhaps, given the fact that this is a Gallic production based on a French bestseller.)
“The Little Seamstress” boasts a cast of attractive young leads and gleefully eccentric secondary players, and it’s given a burnished, gauzy glow by the widescreen cinematography of Jean Marie Dreujou, who makes wonderful use not only of the spectacular locales but of vasoline-covered lenses as well. But it’s somehow unseemly to turn the brutality of the Maoist Cultural Revolution into an almost paradisiacal setting for the triumph of young love and the exaltation of romantic literature. The makers try to camouflage the disconnect by turning the whole story into a sort of memory piece--we eventually see the young men in later years, with Ma a musician in France and Luo a respected physician in the “new” China, and as the region in which the village is located is readied for destruction as part of a huge reservoir project Ma returns to revisit it, reunite with Luo and try to find the seamstress. The ploy isn’t entirely successful, since these later sequences veer between the bathetic and the stilted--but it may make the almost hallucinatory storybook quality ladled over the horrors of the Maoist regime more palatable to many, in much the same way that for most viewers Roberto Benigni’s saccharine “Life is Beautiful” managed to turn even the Holocaust into an occasion for nostalgia and sentiment rather than anger and revulsion.
So as a woozy, old-fashioned romance about young lovers oppressed by a brutal government but spiritually liberated by art, “The Little Seamstress” is skillfully done, pushing most of the right buttons and looking great in the process. But the broader historical context may make one just a tad queasy reveling in its visual and emotional excesses.