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In 1971 China, in the lingering grip of the cultural revolution, two university students, Luo and Ma, are sent to a mountain mining village as part of their reeducation duty to purge them of their classical western oriented education. Amid the backbreaking work and stifling ignorance of the community, the two boys find that music, and the presence of the beautiful local young women are the only pleasant things in their miserable life. However, none compare to the young seamstress granddaughter of the local tailor. Stealing a departing student's secret cache of forbidden books of classic western literature such as the works of Honore de Balzac, they set about to woo her and teach her things she had never imagined. In doing so, they start a journey that would profoundly change her perspective on her world and teach the boys about the power of literature and their own ability to change their world in truly revolutionary ways. Written by
Kenneth Chisholm (firstname.lastname@example.org)
This Sino-French film breaks no particular new ground, is not strong on action or drama, and is unlikely to move you either to great joy, or to tears. Despite this, there is something innately satisfying about watching it, which defies casual analysis.
The story centres on two young men, Ma and Luo. Coming from "reactionary bourgeois" families in the city, they are sent by the Chinese authorities for "re-education" to a beautiful yet achingly backward and isolated community in the mountains. There they undertake menial work, live in comparative squalor, but predictably find love in the form of the same woman known throughout the film simply as "the little seamstress".
While "Balzac " will win few originality awards, its strength lies in execution.
Sijie Dai manages to tell his story (which is semi-autobiographical) in a straightforward way. The local party chief is ignorant and officious without ever descending into malignancy. Ma and Luo are engaging without being overtly benevolent. The "peasants" are ignorant without being stupid. As love blossoms, the emotion of the film moves from repression to longing.
There are some wonderful, poignant moments in the film too, which underscore the mood. The local party chief exclaims early in the film "revolutionary peasants will never be corrupted by filthy bourgeois chicken"; Ma and Luo are sent to the cinema with instructions to tell the story to the village on their return; the little seamstress comments wistfully that she can "see planes flying overhead, and wonder to what far cities they are going" reminding us painfully that this is the 1960s not the 1860s.
Mostly, though, the audience is reminded of the futility of repression; the insatiable thirst for knowledge and new ideas, even among the villagers who are transfixed by the basic choices to be found in a city-boy's cookbook.
The cinematography is also wonderful. Apart from the flood sequence at the end, there is nothing flashy about it (and, given the scenery, it's possible that even I could do a fair job of making the film look pretty) but it is precisely the understated nature of the cinematography that I loved.
If the film has any particular weakness, its end (at least in terms of the Phoenix Mountain segment) is abrupt and seems not to follow logically from what has gone before. This is a small criticism though.
Many films today, even the good ones, seem to force their themes upon the audience by brute force, yet upon leaving the cinema, there seems little to talk about or ruminate over. "Balzac ", at least for me, was the opposite. Its light touch has worked its way into my unguarded consciousness. It is a welcome guest, and long may it stay.
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