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In 1971, during China’s Cultural Revolution, two young ‘reactionary’ city teenagers (Kun Chen, Ye Liu) - sons of writers - are sent to a remote mountain village for re-education in the ways of revolutionary Maoist peasants. The village seamstress, pretty granddaughter of the revered local tailor (Shuangbao Wang), attracts their attention and they take her under their wing, reading to her from forbidden foreign books and generally opening her mind to literature and what it reflects. Both men fall in love with her, but neither can keep her as she responds to the stimulus of a world of ideas beyond her village.

Review by Louise Keller:
A charming reflection of young love and the impressionable years before adulthood, Balzac and The Chinese Seamstress allows us a glimpse of a forgotten world far away from the cities, where hundreds of steps made of rock divide the mountains from the valleys. This is Dai Sijie’s story, and he has brought it to the screen from his novel with a great sense of place and we can’t help but warm to the characters. 

Set at the time of the cultural revolution, young men are put through their re-education with a community that lives very simply. Cookbooks are flung into the fire and a violin is considered a silly toy. It’s not until a Sonata is described as a ‘mountain song’, judiciously re-titled ‘Mozart is thinking of Chairman Mao’, that the violin is also salvaged from the fire. While Luo and Ma are being re-educated, they begin their own re-educating of the locals by reading the banned books and recounting films to an enthralled audience. But it’s the Little Seamstress, the granddaughter of the aged tailor, who enthrals the two young men, and they both fall in love with her. We never get to know her name, which is all the more endearing, as she symbolises an era gone by. ‘A book can change your life’ we hear, and as the passages from Balzac, Dumas, Flaubert and others are read out loud, we can see how everyone’s life is changing. 

As the tailor hears the story of the Count of Monte Cristo, suddenly the local clothes acquire its flavour, with embroidered fleur de lys and nautical emblems. Luo, Ma and the Little Seamstress hide the precious books in a remote cave called The Book Grotto. The days are spent completing strenuous manual tasks, while the evenings are left to fantasise with the help of the books, transporting them to far away lands and times. There’s a priceless scene when Ma is coerced into creating a make-shift dentist drill using the wheel of the sewing machine. After all, his father is a dentist, which supposedly gives him all the qualifications he needs! (I know I will remember this scene next time I go to the dentist.) 

I love the use of the violin throughout the film and the setting is truly spectacular with its sheer mountainous cliffs and valleys. Unfortunately the film’s resolution falls somewhat flat, when Sijie brings us back to present day and we revisit Luo and Ma some twenty years later. The magic that is so beautifully created in the remote areas is suddenly lost with this section that feels so alien to the rest of the film. But perhaps that is what the magic of youth is all about – forming a separate part of our lives that can never be revisited.

Published October 30, 2003

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CAST: Kun Chen, Ye Liu, Xun Zhao, Shuangbao Wang, Zhijun Cong, Hong Wei Wang


SCRIPT: Sijie Dai, Nadine Perront

RUNNING TIME: 111 minutes

PRESENTATION: 16 : 9; 5.1 surround sound

SPECIAL FEATURES: Cast and crew bios

DVD DISTRIBUTOR: 21st Century Pictures Video

DVD RELEASE: October 29, 2003

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