THE IDEA of literature having a significant effect on one's life is pretty commonplace in the free world. We are used to reading as widely as we have time and energy for. So it takes a movie like "Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress," set during China's repressive Cultural Revolution, to make us realize what an extraordinary gift it is to be able to read books and draw wisdom from the experience.
The Chinese movie, which director Dai Sijie co-adapted (with Nadine Perront) from his book of the same name, follows the saga of four main characters, all of whom are caught up in Mao Zedong's reeducation program. Under this dictate of the 1970s, city dwellers are forced to live in the rural districts to purge themselves of bourgeois sentiments and learn how to live collectively.
Two city-raised teenage friends, Luo (Kun Chen) and Ma (Ye Liu), are dispatched to a mountain village for their indoctrination. Considered to be middle-class elitists, they are required to submit to the village leader (Shuangbao Wang), who makes them work in the mine, push dirt around and generally perform manual labor. When they're not working, they're forced to worship the new ways of Mao, whether in group gatherings or in watching communist propaganda films.
When the village chief orders Ma, a musician, to play his violin, he performs some Mozart. The chief demands to know what Mozart tune he's playing. Already aware of the anti-bourgeois atmosphere, Ma pauses.
" 'Mozart's Thinking About Chairman Mao,' " he declares. As Ma performs, the camera soars upward, as if in sympathetic celebration. This is the spirit of freedom, and it lifts everyone.
Luo meets a pretty villager in a neighboring hamlet, whom he dubs the Little Seamstress (Xun Zhou) for the work she does for an old tailor (Zhijun Cong). She loves to hear stories, but she cannot read, he learns. Determined to "cure her of her ignorance," Luo wants to make her literate, so he steals a cache of banned books (translated works of Balzac, Dostoevsky and Kipling, among others) and reads to her in secret. She likes Balzac. And as Mao's reeducation program continues all over China, Luo and Ma do their little bit to wave the flag of global awareness.
If the movie is straightforward and predictable in its attitude, it also exudes a sort of documentary lyricism. This is clearly a timepiece, culled directly from Dai's experiences. Who could have made up the scene, after all, in which Luo and Ma create an impromptu dental device for the chief's toothache, using a sewing machine for a drill and pouring melted tin into his painful cavity? In fact, Dai was sent to just such a reeducation camp when he was 17. Those events may have taken place more than 30 years ago, but the mentality doesn't seem to have changed completely. Dai has said in interviews that the Chinese censors who watched the film declared the characters to be caricatures of communism. They also wanted to know if Dai could change the story so that Luo and Ma could introduce the Little Seamstress to Chinese, not European, literature. He was smart enough, I'm sure, not to tell them that stories are supposed to be about remembering, not forgetting.
BALZAC AND THE LITTLE CHINESE SEAMSTRESS (Unrated, 111 minutes) -- Contains some violence and some intense material. In Mandarin Chinese with subtitles. At the Avalon Theatre.