In the years since zhang yimou started slipping cloaked stories of freedom out of China, there's been a great leap sideways.Dai Sijie's Balzac And The Little Chinese Seamstress exists because we've already seen the delicate political balancing acts in Raise The Red Lantern and Ju Dou. But Dai swings the Chinese export movie past diplomacy toward decoration.
This, too, is the story of a rural girl's coming to voice. But instead of a domineering husband, the villain here is Mao. Set during the Cultural Revolution, it's the story of two educated boys, Ma and Luo, sent up Phoenix Mountain for re-education. But they decide that re-education goes both ways, and set about introducing the local tailor's granddaughter to a stolen cache of European literature. In scenes that betray this film's French origins, Ma and Luo begin reading her stories from Flaubert, Dumas and especially Balzac.
Like Zhang Yimou's early work, Dai's film sets female empowerment against stunning landscapes. The verdant hillsides and gorgeous gorges intoxicate, and exactly 15 minutes in there's a scene of beautiful village girls cavorting in a pool under a waterfall.
Romantic idyll: check. Skin: ditto.
Dramatically, Dai's film is extraordinarily well made, always finding the detail that best captures an emotional or narrative shift. In one lovely sequence, the old tailor, under the spell of Dumas's Count Of Monte Cristo, starts sewing French styles and details into his clothes for the local girls.
Of course, that's impossible. The bright fabrics and frills he uses would never have been found anywhere near such a remote village at the time.
Dai made his debut in 1989 with China, My Sorrow, another pastoral set during the Cultural Revolution. He spent four years in rural re-education himself, and the time clearly has personal resonance for him. But this new film surrenders accuracy to the demands of audience fantasy.
It's worth noting that Dai first published this story as a novel, in France, and that it became a huge success. Given how it flatters French values, that should be no surprise. Imagine a story in which the words of Marshall McLuhan and Northrop Frye seduce a ripe, young village girl into Canadian ideals of clarity and skepticism.
OK, maybe firstname.lastname@example.org
BALZAC AND THE LITTLE CHINESE SEAMSTRESS directed by Dai Sijie, written by Dai and Nadine Perront, produced by Lise Fayolle with Chen Kun, Liu Ye, Zhou Xun and Wang Shuangbao. 116 minutes. Opens Friday (February 28). For venues and times, see First-Run Movies, page 75. Rating: NNN