Thursday, 30 August 2012

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress

Where this film scores big is in the 'less is more' approach it adopts and in its use of stunning natural scenery which 'performs' so strongly that it should be listed as a member of the cast. It offers an insight into life under the Red Brigades of Mao's Cultural Revolution in China in the 1970's. However, this film is neither original in its plot or filled with memorable acting performances.

The story is essentially about three things: the power of ideas, the desire for humans to transcend through creativity and it's about love. The story begins in 1971 as we follow two young lads from families who have been labelled as liberal intellectuals making them counter-revolutionary. The lads have been sent from their city homes to Phoenix Mountain to be 're-educated'. The film is filled with clunky Maoist rhetoric, such as the village chief proclaiming "revolutionary peasants will never be corrupted by filthy bourgeois chicken"!

We are never told what the precise crimes the bourgeois families have committed and the two lads, Luo and Ma seem more than a little naive as they are confronted with the stark poverty of life in a remote village cut off from the rest of the world. Time and time again, the lads lie and befuddle the locals to save themselves from being hauled up in front of the local thought police.

As I said, this is a film first and foremost about the power of ideas. Under the Cultural Revolution all foreign literature was banned. One of the lads is a gifted violinist and plays a piece of Mozart which the village leader immediately interprets as being reactionary and bourgeois. The lad avoids confiscation of his violin by explaining that it is 'Mozart thinking of Mao' and so is allowed to keep his instrument.

The two boys are unable to cope with the harsh physical regime that life on Phoenix Mountain demands. Recognising this, the village leader sends them off to the local town to watch a North Korean film and to return to the village and retell the story. This they do with great embellishment and demonstrate the power of story to lift and transform from the here and now to somewhere different. This provides the metaphorical mechanism by which Maoist China can be escaped. 

Meanwhile the lads develop an interest in the granddaughter of the local tailor whose trade gives him an elevated status in the eyes of the peasants. The girl is the tailor's seamstress. As the lads develop a closeness to her, she responds to their quest for an experience to transcend the mundanity of peasant life. She listens endlessly to the lads retelling of Western classics that they have read and she is enthralled. The seamstress confesses to gazing up to the sky each time she hears a plane and wondering where the people are going and what kind of lives they lead.

Another reactionary bourgeois lad is rumoured to be hoarding a stash of foreign literature and with the seamstress' help they steal it. As the lads read the novels and poems to the illiterate seamstress, she becomes more and more drawn into their world of ideas and stories that offer the hope of escape.

The pacing of the plot is at times jerky and the film lurches towards its conclusion rather unsatisfactorily. However, whilst the outcome is in part predictable - given the semi-autobiographical nature of the story, I won't spoil it for you.

This film's delight lies in the way the story is told and the setting in which it is told. Both outweigh any other short-comings the film may have. It is gentle but has a strong message. It is well worth the investment of your time - it was a Golden Globe nominee and also an official Cannes selection. I'll give it 7.5/10.

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