It's 1971, not a particularly good time to be living in China if you're the scion of urban reactionary intellectuals. You know the type: your basic bourgeois scum who worship at the altar of Mozart and Balzac and can't get with the dialectical materialism program.
Or at least that's how the communist powers-that-be see it in "Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress," and therefore send our testosterone-fueled heroes, Luo and Ma, to the far reaches of a mountain village for a little reeducation. There, in the name of the Cultural Revolution, their books are burned and the best friends are forced to toil for long hours, climbing thousands of steps along the mountainside, buckets of foul liquid slopping onto their bare backs.
"To think that this is the dump where we may spend the rest of our lives," says Ma (Ye Liu) when he first arrives at the little village, where no one's ever seen a book, let alone a clock, and where the hours are long and brutal. And indeed, at first blush, the viewer can't help but feel sorry for the violin-playing Ma and his best friend Luo (Kun Chen), who never met a Balzac book he didn't like.
But "Balzac" is far more than a grim fairy tale of indignities suffered at the hands of the big bad commies. It is to the film's credit that it does not resort to heavy-handed caricatures of days gone by.
Luo and Ma find ways to get around the restrictions imposed by the head of the village (Shuangbao Wang). These include assuring him that a Mozart ditty was written because the Viennese composer "was thinking of Chairman Mao," spying on the local hotties bathing in a swimming hole and setting their one alarm clock ahead by several hours so the foreman thinks it's quitting time.
Things change, of course, when they meet the Little Seamstress (Xun Zhou), a feisty beauty from the next town over and the granddaughter of Old Tailor (Zhijun Cong), who is so revered that he rides around the mountainside on the backs of peasants, perched on a chair. He's got one eye trained on his fashionable creations -- and the other on his granddaughter's virtue. No one's getting next to the Little Seamstress, not if he can help it.
Except that the tailor's old and Ma and Luo are young, and well, they've got hormones on their side. They both fall in love with the illiterate Little Seamstress (they prefer her sobriquet to her real name) and will do just about anything to be around her. Together, the three of them discover -- okay, steal -- a stash of forbidden fruit: banned books penned by the likes of Dumas, Balzac, Flaubert and other decadent foreigners. In secret, they begin reading to the Little Seamstress, turning her on to worlds that she never knew existed.
"I want to cure her of her ignorance," the love-struck Luo tells Ma again and again, but ultimately, it's not clear who is being cured.
But "Balzac" isn't a film so much about Big Ideas as it is about young love, and the complications that arise when you and your best bud fall for the same girl. It's a gentle story, where nothing, and then everything, seems to happen.
Shot in the Sichuan area of China, the film is directed by Chinese writer and director Dai Sijie, and is based on his quasi-autobiographical best-selling novel of the same name. (The novel was originally published in France.) It was no small coup that Sijie, who was sent for reeducation in his teens and now lives in Paris, was granted permission from the Chinese government to film in his homeland.
Still, Sijie was forced to make concessions. The film leaves the viewer with no real conclusions about the Cultural Revolution, rather abruptly dropping it as a plot device at the end.
Sure, "Balzac" meanders at too leisurely a pace. But the actors are charming; the story sweet. Visually, "Balzac" is a jewel of a movie, with panoramic vistas of the lake on the mountain, framed in mist, where the villagers, in a haunting nighttime ceremony, float candlelit paper boats bearing the names of their dearly departed.
Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress (111 minutes, in Chinese with English subtitles, at the Avalon) is not rated.