Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress – out now

The beguilingly titled Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress is based on writer/director’s Dai Saijie’s best-selling autobiographical novel of the same name. Set in the Chinese Cultural Revolution during the 1970’s, the film centres around two adolescents who have committed the sin of being born to “reactionary” parents – doctors who dared to suggest that Chairman Mao might not be entirely perfect. On account of their background, the boys are sent on a rural “re-education” camp where they are to learn the virtues of Maoist thinking and hard work, which includes much lugging of human excrement up a hill.

However, their gruelling stay is brightened by meeting the captivating daughter of the local tailor, known simply as the Little Seamstress (the boys never bother to find out her actual name). An uneducated peasant, the two bourgeois city-boys seek to open her mind through forbidden Western novels which they have stolen from another member of the camp — classics from the likes of Dickens, Flaubert and, yes, Balzac, the Little Seamstress’ favourite. The boys also read “The Count of Monte Christo” to the old grandfather, which inspires him to add many elegant details to his garments.

The setting is luscious – colossal mountains that jut straight up to the sky, shrouded in mist, and delicate mountain paths. The acting can be touching. Since Dai Saijie experienced re-education camp himself, little details, such as the cookbook that is burned because it contains a recipe for “bourgeois” chicken, lend the film a certain authenticity. However, the film which claims to testify to the emancipating power of books is over-simplistic and often implausible. It is difficult to understand how the Little Seamstress so quickly gets to grips with concepts way beyond the realm of her experience. Although filmed in China (but banned from being shown over there), the film is unashamedly pro-Western, to the extent that Chinese culture, and the people who practise it, are portrayed as primitive at best.

The beautiful scenery and familiar themes of love and the transforming power of art may make this film pleasant to watch, but viewers hoping for something edgy and insightful will be disappointed.

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