Based on the international bestseller, Balzac and The Little Chinese Seamstress is set in the early 1970’s during the later stages of China’s cultural revolution. Two city-bred teenage best friends, Luo (Kun Chen) and Ma (Ye Liu) are sent to a backwards mountainous region for a Maoist re-education. The two see and fall in love with the local beauty (Xun Zhou), the daughter of the most renowned tailor in the region. They never know her name – referring to her only as “the Little Seamstress” – but she captivates them with her innocence and sensuality.
When they discover a hidden suitcase filled with banned books by western writer, they read these works to the little seamstress for hours on end in a secret meeting place. Thirsting for knowledge of the world beyond, she comes to love, in particular, Balzac and his friends. On her mystical journey, the Little Seamstress finds the courage to leave he village for broader horizons.
Xiao cai feng 8.25
eyelights: the story. the gorgeous mountainous region. the little Chinese seamstress.
eyesores: the notion that this beautiful area could be flooded for a hydro project.
‘Xiao cai feng’ is a 2002 motion picture by Dai Sijie, based on his semi-autobiographical novel ‘Balzac et la Petite Tailleuse chinoise’. It begins in China, circa 1971, and tells the story of two young men who are sent to a mountainous village for re-education. It’s a tale of friendship, love and the power of storytelling (via literature and cinema) to affect society.
It’s a gorgeous, partially poetic picture. Principally shot in the Zhaniajie Mountains, Hunan, China, the scenery is breathtaking: the waterfalls, lush greenery, rock paths, …etc., it all looks phenomenal in the hanging mist. There’s also a scenic lagoon which will eventually be the setting for a lovely lovemaking scene – one that doesn’t offer much nudity, but is darned sexy.
The story is set in the fictional mountain of the Phoenix in the Sky. We are told that many years ago, the region was gifted to the emperor’s eunuch – making it the first reference to homosexuality in China. From what I can tell, this is all made up for the film. But those mountains are a wonder: they are very high up, and look perilous – the villagers are always on the edge of a precipice.
Most of the locals are farmers and miners. Our two protagonists, Luo Min and Ma Jianling, are forced to mine with them and have to carry buckets of liquid manure on their backs to go fertilize the fields – very nasty stuff. Naturally, the pair are devastated at the thought of being there the rest of their lives – especially after all their belongings are scrutinized by the village chief, and sometimes burned.
Unlike these city boys, the villagers are poorly educated, and can’t read. Their exposure to culture outside their own, let alone city living, is next to nil. This explains their reaction to the young men’s belongings, including Ma’s violin, the purpose of which they had no grasp whatsoever. With time, the village chief allows the pair to go to the city to watch a movie and return to recount the tale to them.
This begins to affect the villagers in small ways. Further to that, the pair discover that another man who had been sent for re-education, and was due to return to the city very soon, had stashed away a suitcase full of illegal books by Balzac, Dostoyevski, Kipling and the like. Prompted by a young seamstress that they have befriended, they decide to steal his collection for their use.
They would hide these books in a grotto, far away from the village, agreeing to only take one book out at a time, just in case they are caught. The girl, who is fascinated by the outside world, relishes Luo’s readings. Hoping to educate her, he begins to teach her how to read. They would also recount these stories to the villagers, making them believe that they are the movies they’ve been seeing.
I loved how they would tell the villagers that the authors were the film directors and how Luo reinterpreted the stories for them. It was both amusing and stunning to watch. Needless to say, the girl begins to change, and her grandfather, having caught her and Luo reading a book, becomes concerned. However, he asks Luo to read him a story and becomes fascinated with ‘The Count of Monte Cristo’.
2/3 of the way in, ‘ Xiao cai feng’ abruptly flashes forward 15 years to show the area being discussed on the news, as the Chinese government prepares to flood it to create the world’s largest hydro project. Ma, now a famous violinist residing in France, decides to return, hoping to find his old friends. It is then that we realize that perhaps not everything had ended on a positive note; the seeds of doubt have been planted.
As Ma revisits the village of the Phoenix in the Sky, he discovers that modern life has finally crept into that sheltered world: they now have electricity and other modern conveniences. But the people he once knew are no longer there. He eventually tracks down Luo who’s now a doctor in the big city, married with a son. They reminisce and discuss the way that the three had parted so many years ago.
The little Chinese seamstress, however, is nowhere to be found.
The picture ends with a gorgeous shot of the shack they once lived in, with Ma playing the violin and the other two reading, submerged in water – the same water that would soon bury the whole area, as though their memories of that time are now forever lost beneath this hydro project. It’s a heartbreaking moment, showing us that there is no return to the past; it’s gone forever.
Although this is a departure from the book, I found it most appropriate. It added an extra layer to the story, discussing how modern life sometimes bowls over out-dated notions for the sake of progress – but that, in the process, it also can erase some of the most precious things in our lives. It’s reminder that, even as we look to the future, it’s always important to look back to the past. It’s what got us there.
I really loved ‘ Xiao cai feng’. It’s not the most engaging film I’ve ever seen, but it flows quite effortlessly, discussing important notions and wrapping it up in the tight bonds of human relationships. It’s serious and it’s light, it’s realistic and poetic at once. Plus which it’s just a visually splendid picture – it’s eye candy. I would highly recommend this one for lovers of foreign films and of literature.
Date of viewing: July 7, 2014