Sije Dai’s part-romance, part-historical drama is so beautiful it almost makes you long for the good ol’ days of Chairman Mao and the Cultural Revolution. “Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress” makes such good use of the overwhelmingly grand landscape of rural China, in and around the Tibetan plateau, that the novel it is based on — which Dai wrote and released in the United States in 2001 — is brought to lush life.
The plot centers around two teenage city boys, Ma and Luo, who are sent to “re-education” camps by the communists because of supposedly reactionary parents. Their new village, approached by an impossibly steep path of crumbling stone, is worlds away from anything American moviegoers would imagine. Dai allows himself to luxuriously sweep the tree covered mountains that separate the villagers from their nearest neighbors, creating a gorgeous but of course horrifying sense of isolation.
There is a permanent tension between the setting’s infinite aesthetics and its Siberia-like purpose. The boys may get to spend their free time spying on local girls bathing in a hot spring, but they cannot leave without official permission from the camp’s fascistic chief.
This sense of paradisal isolation is pervasive from the earliest parts of the film. The ignorance of the illiterate villagers manifests itself in an almost comical fear and suspicion, central themes of the film. The boys and their modern wonders immediately represent bourgeois values that the villagers loath with frightening passion. Despite the intended removal of class within the reeducation camp, antagonism between the classes is pervasive.
But as the village is progressively infiltrated by more and more modern culture — at first they marvel at Luo’s clock and Ma’s violin — the collective loss of innocence and naivete makes the boys’ forced isolation seem somehow more worthwhile.
But the politics of the film provide only a backdrop to its central love-story. Early on, both boys fall in love with a tailor’s daughter (Xun Zhou), who travels to them from the next town over. Although her pure beauty is enchanting, it is her complete ignorance that seems to attract them the most. Dai films her doll-like looks with sensitivity and grace.
In an attempt to introduce the seamstress to the outside world, they procure a collection of forbidden “reactionary texts,” including Dostoyevsky, Kipling — and, of course, Balzac. The transformation that follows is predictable but fascinating nonetheless: The boys grow into rural revolutionary peasants, changing their village, while the girl begins to search for a life outside rural society and her lovers.
The story tends to descend into light-hearted romance, but it’s put to good use. Scenes of the trio reading, watching North Korean films and then recounting the plots to villagers provide a unique commentary on the value of entertainment, and the spread of ideas through art.
Though Dai also meditates on the complex benefits and hardships of living under communism, the heart of “Balzac” is a traditional story about a boy and his best friend who love and lose the same girl. But Dai is armed with such a strong directorial vision — one made even more impressive because he is adapting his own text — that this simple story evolves into a complex and endlessly gorgeous film.
For instance, the simple shots of Luo and Ma retelling film plots by lamp-light (while they dust their audience with fake snow) creates a sense of closeness and elegance that Hollywood would have a tough time reproducing.
Perhaps the most powerful aspect of “Balzac” is the completely foreign experience it provides. The infinite mountain landscape and near-total cultural depravation are unimaginable (malaria is cured by flagellation, rice paddies plowed by oxen), yet it is impossible to resist immersion. One can only wonder how the film has played in China — it was released there as under a different name three years ago — but one can only imagine that the sense of escape would not be lost.