Film >MAO AND THEN
Though it's set during the Chinese cultural revolution of the early '70s, Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress isn't a gritty look at that horrendous period in history. Director Dai Sijie, who also wrote the novel on which the film is based, lived through those times, and he's less interested in focusing on the persecution (and sometimes flat-out murder) of writers, artists and anyone else who showed "bourgeois tendencies" than he is intent on recapturing a period of his youth that he sees through a gloss of nostalgia.
Luo and Ma are two young men who've been sent to a remote and backward mountain village to be given a Maoist "re-education," which mainly means they're forced to do tedious, hard manual labor. They're smart enough to know that the whole thing is somewhat farcical, but also smart enough to go along with the program. (When accomplished violinist Ma plays a Mozart sonata for the peasants most of whom don't even know what a violin is he tells the local leader that the piece is called "Mozart Is Thinking of Chairman Mao.")
The duo's boredom is alleviated when they discover that another young man sent for re-education has a stash of forbidden books mostly 19th-century European and Russian novels hidden in his hut. The two fall in love with a young girl from a neighboring village and woo her by reading to her from the forbidden books. The young seamstress shows an instant affinity to Balzac in particular.
The film's main flaw is a treacly sentimentality; one gets the impression that a certain amount of vérité has been sacrificed in search of a wider audience. Most interesting are the early scenes, in which Luo and Ma adjust to village life and the various absurdities demanded of them by the revolution. Once the film settles into a three-way love story between the two and the seamstress, it becomes altogether more conventional.
The most appealing aspect of the movie is the romantic notion that books can change lives. Luo and Ma's interest seems as much the result of intellectual curiosity as it is an appreciation of Balzac's storytelling abilities. They're also impressed that the books deal with more or less ordinary people, unlike the royal personages that dominate classical Chinese literature. For them, this is a revelation. But the seamstress' attraction to Balzac is more enigmatic; you have to take it on faith, along with a few other things in this big, beautifully photographed and somewhat mushy film.