'Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress' The French-language film Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress is based on an autobiographical novel by Dai Sijie. The book was published all over the world, though not in the author's native China. Now he's adapted it as a screenplay, and directed the movie, too.
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'Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress'

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'Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress'

Review

Arts & Life

JACKI LYDEN, host:

The movie "Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress" is based on an autobiographical novel by Dai Sijie. The book has been published all over the world, except in his native China. He's now adapted it as a screenplay, and he directed it as well, bringing it to the screen with what Bob Mondello calls a `literary sensibility.'

BOB MONDELLO reporting:

Some Chinese writers remember the period known as the Cultural Revolution as one of brutality and ideological cruelty. But Dai Sijie's portrait of the re-education of two young men in a remote mountain village is lyrical and ravishing on screen. It begins with mountain vistas, suggesting a huge gulf between the world that Luo and Ma are about to enter and the political world they left. They trudge up to the village with songs of Chairman Mao ringing in their ears...

(Soundbite of "Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress")

Group of People: (Singing in foreign language)

MONDELLO: ...and discover that everyone there is illiterate. The villagers have never so much as seen a cookbook, and they burn the one the boys brought with them when the chief says they should corn, not bourgeois chicken. They're about to throw Ma's violin into the fire thinking it's a toy when Luo explains that it's a musical instrument and suggests that Ma play some Mozart. The chief is skeptical, so Luo says it's mountain music, and when he is still skeptical, gives him a song title.

(Soundbite of "Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress")

"LUO": (Foreign language spoken)

MONDELLO: "Mozart Is Thinking of Chairman Mao."

(Soundbite of "Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress"; crowd reaction)

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

MONDELLO: That carries the day.

(Soundbite of "Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress"; music)

MONDELLO: Every once in a while an elderly tailor visits this isolated village with his teen-age granddaughter. Luo falls for her when she dismantles his alarm clock to see how it works. And when he discovers a stash of forbidden books, he starts reading stories to her; Balzac and Kipling, "The Count of Monte Cristo" and "Madame Bovary," opening her up to a rush of ideas and, of course, during the Cultural Revolution, setting the stage for a variety of problems.

The director treats most of this pretty gently. He doesn't demonize the village, finding lots of anecdotal humor in what is essentially a fish-out-of-water tale. It's such a romanticized portrait that it's probably best to accept it as a fable with all the staying power that that implies. When director Dai Sijie brings us up to date in the film's last moments and shows us Luo and Ma two decades later, their memories of Balzac and of the little Chinese seamstress are still plenty vivid, and it's easy to see why. I'm Bob Mondello.

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