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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 (email@example.com)
A Nostalgic Look at Young People Impacted by the Cultural Revolution
"Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress (Xiao cai feng)" raises the awkward situation of commenting on a semi-autobiographical story which was originally written, then adapted and directed by the person who lived it in the same, beautiful locations where the events that inspired Sijie Dai took place. How much is fiction and how much is docu-drama? And I haven't read the book so I don't know how much he changed.
The basics of the story would seem like a 1940's sci fi allegory of a totalitarian, anti-intellectual society if the Cultural Revolution under the here ubiquitously revered ruler Mao Tse Tung hadn't actually happened, with its anti-literate class-based revenge of kicking the children of the perceived elite out of the cities to rural areas for re-education at rigorous manual labor. In outline, his story is like a real life "Fahrenheit 451" and "the Little Seamstress," the teen ager, played charmingly by Xun Zhou, who gets caught up in a triangle between the out-of-towners, like "Ninotchka." She, startlingly, has far more ambition than the loyal peasant girl in "The Road Home."
So it's hard to tell if the strong condescension in the tone to the local peasantry is what the two young men finally learn to overcome or is somewhat shown to be just as endemic in the Communist Party as is seen at the end they were suppressing the beauty of local traditions almost as much as intellectual influences. Because the premise that transforming aesthetics can only come from outside influences through movies, fashion and Western literature and music just seems anthropologically naive as they poke fun at and trick the locals. We do see that the peasants appreciate story telling, sewing and songs - but only of the most earthy kind until the re-educated sneak in their experiences, disguised as homages to Lenin or Mao. For example, with the almost universality of stringed instruments in human culture, it's hard to believe that peasants would be that skeptical when first exposed to a violin.
The film is at its strongest, and loveliest, when it sticks to the personal relationships that result from contacts with the locals, as human nature is more powerful than ideology and youth is simply irrepressible and non-Orwellian. The romantic triangle plays out beautifully and gently demonstrates male instincts for Pygmalion control, irrespective of politics. The story affirms the Law of Unintended Consequences, heavily symbolized at the end with the coming of a dam on the river that will have the same effect on these towns as the TVA had on now forgotten communities in Appalachia.
This tender and poignant nostalgia is a chronological and thematic prequel to the less optimistic "The World (Shijie)" in showing the impact of globalization on China and its people.
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