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Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, the novel, made a nice little splash in my reading circles when it came out in English translation from the original French of the author, Dai Sijie.  Arriving in 2001 it was a sort of a cross-over novel for Western readers.  While writers in China had slowly been rebuilding their craft following the end of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), and a few novels and memoirs had been published and translated, revealing the depths of its horror, none had percolated up into wide public knowledge until Seamstress….

Much of the reason it found a wide audience compared to other books about the Cultural Revolution is that Seamstress is relatively gentle.  The re-education of  three young men is not much worse than several years of rural boy scout camp.  None of the beatings, starvation, murders and cannibalism that are told of in other novels appear here.  It also had some nice cross cultural tags — Balzac, the love for reading French literature, the ability to play Mozart [Mozart is always thinking of Chairman Mao!], and a sort of  Jules and Jim falling in love with the tailor’s beautiful daughter — the little seamstress.  Their loving imitation of Henry Higgins  to her — encouraging her natural curiosity through the reading of the contraband books and telling stories, and teaching her to read, all  add to the charm.  These are familiar tropes for a certain kind of European fiction,  a tale we have often heard, and still appreciate.

It turns out that the author, Dai Sijie, came to writing after some success as a film director in France, where he had come on scholarship from China, in 1984.   Revisiting the success of his novel as the director was a natural.  As a result we have the quite wonderful adaptation of the novel into film by the author himself.

As he did in the novel, Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, the movie, offers many cross-over elements.  Luo [Kun Chen], Ma [Ye Liu] and the Seamstress [Xun Zhou] are all exceedingly lovely to look at.  “Four-eyes,” [Hongwei Wang] is an appropriately geekish object of fun.  Though the butt of their jokes and desperate thievery, it all seems pretty harmless, especially  as he is returned to the city by his wealthy parents [however inexplicable this is during the Cultural Revolution.]  Luo, masquerading as a “dentist” to the evil camp-boss — on the basis that his father was one, and therefore he must also be one — takes a nice slap at the stupidity of destroying the educated classes by way of one of the oldest comic bits in literature.  Early commedia dell’ arte often had tooth extractions being done on the person who most needed some pain, drawn out as long as possible for the enjoyment of the “dentists” and the audience alike.

The scenes of mountains and sky, shot in the  Zhaniajie Mountains in Hunan [also the template for the floating mountains in Avatar] are lush and inviting. [How can anything really ugly happen in a place so beautiful?]  The sound track [by Pujian Wang, with help from Mozart and Beethoven] is often achingly lovely, working off the violin and Mozart’s melodies, adding Chinese bells and stringed instruments.  The village, though gripped in poverty, has the air of many filmic rural villages, allowing a kind of nostalgia-for-a-life-never-lived.

The eventual growth and maturation of the Seamstress from her initial reluctance into learning the deep lesson of the novels,  about worlds beyond the lived one,  individual risk and breaking from conformity, [and so confirming once again that Don Quixote’s minders were right to worry about the effect of reading on the gentleman’s mind] sends her away, leaving the protection of the offered love.

Those books by Balzac.  I won’t read them to you anymore.  I love you so much, and you were leaving without a word!

Again, despite the pain in Luo’s eyes,  we are satisfied.  Instead of giving up everything for love — the other universally  favorite movie theme — she gives up everything for self-determination.

If there is any quibble — well, let me have two, one technical, the other thematic– they are these.  Well into the film there is a several decade long fast forward to the once young men, now well-off professionals in France, remembering their time in the village as youth.  Luo  has just come back from a visit, as the rising waters of the Three Gorges Dam engulfs the village.  He has looked for the Seamstress and has not found her.  As he tells Ma, weeping, and Ma confesses that he too loved her, in his own way, we see the sewing machine and Ma, playing the violin, and Luo bent over reading a book to the Seamstress, through the murky, bubbling water with the lovely, sad violin soundtrack adding the poignancy of time gone by and not recoverable.  It’s a powerful ending, but getting to it by the sudden jump in years is jarring.  It took several moments to reestablish the willing suspension of disbelief, wondering “what the heck? Did they mix up a reel?.”  Had we started with the two older men drinking and talking, remembering, or with Ma waiting for Luo at the airport as he returns,  the ending jump wouldn’t have come so out of the blue.

The second quibble is perhaps about what has made the novel and the film so successful.  It was the Cultural Revolution that is being shown, after all;  10 years that were  savage and cruel beyond belief.  Some 5 million people  (+/- 2m) are thought to have died.  Somehow, as lovely as the movie is, casting the sweet glow of nostalgia over it all seems, somehow, not quite right.  Once there is a body of film work exploring that condition of man — surely worth some small percentage of the attention devoted to the Holocaust– the sweetness of the Seamstress won’t seem so awfully out of place.