(Unrated) Empire Pictures (111 min.)
Directed by Dai Sijie. Stars Xun Zhou, Kun Chen, Ye Liu. In Mandarin with English subtitles. Now playing at the Wellmont Theatre in Montclair
A hidden stash of books changes the lives of three characters in "Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress."
The story is set during China's Cultural Revolution, when Western literature was deemed contraband by communist leader Mao Zedong. His re-education program sent city youths to remote villages, where they worked alongside farmers and miners. The goal of re-education was to empower peasants and diminish the bourgeois.
Author Dai Sijie was among those shuttled from urban homes to rural outposts. After four years of agrarian labor, he returned home to complete high school. His best-selling novel, "Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress," springs from his memories of re-education. A love story tinged with political commentary, the book centers on two young men who are dispatched to a rustic mountain town for lessons in peasantry. There, they find a suitcase filled with forbidden literature and read the texts to a local girl, transforming her in the process.
Sijie himself directs the movie adaptation, shooting the picture on location in China. His filmmaking, for the most part, is as witty and concise as his prose. He makes one faulty choice, adding a present-day epilogue to the film. The extraneous bit of sentiment kills the mood set so skillfully over the preceding 90 minutes.
The central characters, Luo (Kun Chen) and Ma (Ye Liu), hike two days through the mountains to reach the village where they are to be re-educated. The local leader (Shuangbao Wang) immediately burns a cookbook they've packed, declaring, "Revolutionary peasants will never be corrupted by filthy bourgeois chicken."
The chief mistakes Ma's violin for a toy and wants to toss it on the fire as well. The teens convince him not to destroy it, as Ma performs a piece of music he claims is titled "Mozart is Thinking of Chairman Mao."
Sijie never loses sight of the irony inherent in the Cultural Revolution, which promoted the idea that literacy and creative expression halt progress. His protagonists outsmart their communist wardens repeatedly, eventually snatching a hidden suitcase filled with fiction by French authors Honore de Balzac, Alexandre Dumas and Gustave Flaubert.
Luo and Ma share their findings with a teen girl known only as the Little Seamstress (Xun Zhou). She grows to love the novels, while her tutors fall for her. The words have a greater impact on her than either of them ever envisioned.
The narrative reaches its logical conclusion, but Sijie feels compelled to extend the story, tacking on scenes depicting Luo and Ma as middle-aged men. A filmmaker so literate should know an indulgent bookend when he sees one.
Rating note: The film contains sexual content and alcohol abuse.