Danger accompanies a little knowledge

`Balzac' examines enlightenment in the Cultural Revolution

September 09, 2005|By Carina Chocano | Carina Chocano,LOS ANGELES TIMES

Great political upheavals usually get the epic treatment in movies, which tends to flatten wholesale human suffering into cast-of-thousands backdrops for heroic stories of "one ordinary man's extraordinary courage." It's rarer that a film focuses on the effects of large-scale social cataclysms on individuals whose bravery consists of remaining resolutely human and true to themselves, and much more poignant.

In Dai Sijie's Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, which he based on his own best-selling semi-autobiographical novel, two well-bred city boys are shipped off for "re-education" to a remote mountain village in the Sichuan province during China's Cultural Revolution. Ma (Ye Liu), a sensitive violinist, and Luo (Kun Chen), the handsome, cocky son of "a reactionary dentist," are sentenced to four years of labor in the copper mines and fields, where they carry sloshing buckets of human waste up steep mountain paths.

Their new status as fertilizer-donkeys may qualify Luo and Ma as newly minted proletarians in the eyes of the party (they have no idea, when they arrive, how long they'll be staying), but their manners, city clothes and strange possessions, which include a cookbook, an alarm clock and a violin, make them as exotic to the locals (girls especially) as they are threatening to the village's communist chief.

"Revolutionary peasants will never be corrupted by your filthy bourgeois chicken!" he sputters, destroying their cookbook when a farmer asks if a recipe allows the substitution of peanuts for walnuts. Then he nearly throws Ma's violin into the fire. Luo saves the violin by convincing the chief that Ma's Mozart sonatas are "mountain songs," and that the instrument is good for playing old, revolutionary standards like "Mozart is Always Thinking of Chairman Mao." The chief buys it and the fiddle is saved.

That's the thing about fundamentalist ideologies; they're so comprehensive it's hard to keep everything straight, and it's easy to twist things at will. Luo and Ma meet the spirited granddaughter of the village tailor, a local beauty who goes by the name the Little Seamstress (Xun Zhou) and inspires them to entertain the villagers by narrating films they've seen, as long as they're Soviet, Chinese or North Korean, of course.

In no time, both Luo and Ma have fallen in love with the Little Seamstress, who begins a relationship with Luo but keeps Ma close, while Ma keeps his feelings to himself. Bothered by her lack of education and blissfully oblivious to the irony of his plan, Luo decides to "transform" the Little Seamstress by curing her of her ignorance. He enlists Ma to help him steal a suitcase of banned Western books from an astigmatic, field-tilling intellectual, and soon the three of them are huddling in a cave at night to read.

Soon, the boys are passing off Balzac's Cousin Bette as the latest revolutionary themed Albanian film. And the Little Seamstress has taken Balzac, who has imparted the dark lesson that "a woman's beauty is a priceless treasure," as her guide and savior.

Still, it's Flaubert you think of when her anxious grandfather begs Luo and Ma to stop reading novels to her. "I was so frightened my hands shook," he says. "A book can change a life."

Which is why, presumably, both Dai's novel and his movie have been banned in China, though authorities did allow the director, who has lived in France for more than 15 years, to shoot there.

As it happens, though, the transformation of the Little Seamstress is ambiguous and bittersweet and leaves you with the feeling that, like a character out of Balzac, her story will be one of loss of innocence.

Whether that turns out to be liberating or corrupting is impossible to say, though it's clear that in some ways, to Dai, the Little Seamstress represents China itself - too isolated to be worldly but too experienced to be innocent.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress

Starring Xun Zhou, Ye Liu and Kun Chen

Directed by Dai Sijie

Released by Empire Pictures

Rated Unrated (partial nudity)

Time 111 minutes

In Chinese, with English subtitles.

SUN SCORE *** ( 3 STARS )

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