I saw Gone Girl last Friday and enjoyed the film up until I realized what horrible people it centered around. Not flawed human beings, but monsters. One of the authors I felt like reading afterwards as a corrective was Balzac. Instead, I saw the charming Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, about two Chinese boys send to the countryside for re-education during the Cultural Revolution. The novel upon which the film is based is autobiographical, and the writer of the book co-wrote and directed the film.
That is not to say the film understands people as well as Balzac did (for that, see the films of Ozu and Rohmer), but it errs on the side of goodness, and unlike Gone Girl, there is a character arc for the little Chinese seamstress, though it is so subtle that we (and she) do not notice it until it compels her to a decision that gives this film poignancy during its closing minutes.
“I first climbed these steps in 1971.” So begins Ma’s (Ye Liu) narration, as he and Luo (Kun Chen) are led on a narrow mountain path to a small village in the Phoenix Mountains. Once there, the boys’ bags are searched by the Head of the Village (Shuangbao Wang), who is illiterate. When he thumbs through Luo’s cookbook, Luo tells him, “You’re holding it upside-down.” The cookbook is burned after he has Luo read from it and decides it’s too bourgeois. “On our mountain, you’ll work hard and you’ll eat cabbage and corn!” he says. Ma’s violin is spared a similar fate when he plays a Mozart sonata on it. Luo says it’s called, “Mozart is thinking of Chairman Mao.”
After finding out where the local girls go to wash themselves, the two friends sneak off to watch. While trying to get a closer look, Luo falls into a ravine. Ma runs and hides, while the girls look over the edge and make fun of Luo. Later, an old tailor (Zhijun Cong) and his granddaughter (Xun Zhou) come to visit. The granddaughter introduces herself as The Little Seamstress. Luo recognizes her as one of the girls who laughed at him.
She is as simple and ignorant as the rest of the townspeople. When Ma tells her that there is a real rooster inside Luo’s clock that “sings every morning,” she and the other girls take it apart in an attempt to find it. While putting it back together, Luo finds out that the Little Seamstress can’t read. He promises to teach her.
Soon after, a North Korean film plays in town. The Head of the Village tells Luo and Ma to watch the film, then report back to the village. The Little Seamstress is captivated by their retelling, as is the town. Later, she asks if they can tell her other stories. When they say they only know socialist stories, she tells them that another re-educated youth, Four-Eyes (Hongwei Wang), told her he has forbidden books. They manage to steal the books from him and hide them in a cave, promising to only take one book out at a time, in case they are caught.
From that point on, the movie is about the Little Seamstress’s re-education, through these books and through her budding romance with Luo and friendship with Ma. She particularly loves Balzac, and it is Balzac’s influence which leads to her pivotal decision.
Oscar Wilde wrote, “All ideas are dangerous.” Indeed they are, for they make people dissatisfied and wish for better lives. The Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) tried to purge China of ideas, both traditional and Western, that clashed with Mao’s communist ideology, and it says something about the current state of China that Dai Sijie’s book has been translated into 25 languages — but not Chinese. For ultimately Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress is about the power these ideas have.
After reading Ursule Mirouet, Ma says, “I feel the world has changed. The sky, the stars, the sounds, light, even the smell of pigs, nothing is the same anymore.”
So it becomes for the Little Seamstress. Through her, so it becomes for Luo and Ma. And perhaps, after watching this film, so it becomes for you.
Postscript: I saw this film on October 18th, which I later found out is the birthday of lead actress Xun Zhou (she turned 40). A strange coincidence, if one ignores the fact that the evening of October 18th in Seattle is October 19th in China.