Balzac et la petite tailleuse chinoise is in some ways a typical example of a modern Chinese film. It draws upon China’s cultural and political history in order to present a romance/drama set in in a spectacular landscape. Two young men from bourgeois families are sent to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s. They both fall for a pretty young seamstress in the village and they use music and Western literature to woo her and entertain the villagers. As an independent production made with foreign money and a partly foreign crew, it is not dissimilar to many of the so called Sixth Generation films.
The film is to some extent autobiographical in that the writer-director Dai Sijie was himself born into a bourgeois family in 1954 and sent off to the mountains to be ‘re-educated’ as part of the Cultural Revolution. After Mao’s death he was able to study art and eventually to emigrate to France where he later made short films before the success of his novel and the subsequent film. According to the website of the French distributor, BAC, the film has not been seen in China but has been screened in many other countries following an appearance in the ‘Un certain regard’ section of the Cannes Film Festival in 2002. There has not yet been any critical work on the film, but the novel is now beginning to appear on many university reading lists in North America – where it joins other accounts of life under the Cultural Revolution.
The Chinese authorities allowed the crew into China to shoot the film and it is perhaps surprising that there is a reluctance to show the film, despite its critical view of the Cultural Revolution. Certainly, this is a much milder film than The Blue Kite (China 1993) in which director Zhuangzhuang Tian, one of the original cadre of Fifth Generation directors, sets out the brutality of the Red Guards in the late 1960s. Tian was not allowed to make another film until 2003 and his remake of a famous 1948 melodrama, Springtime in a Small Town.
The setting of the film and the theme of more sophisticated outsiders coming to the isolated community suggests an affinity between the seamstress and the young peasant woman at the centre of Chen Kaige’s Yellow Earth (China 1984). But where that seminal film set out to interrogate the history of the impact of Chinese Communism and modernity on an isolated community in a dialectical way, Balzac et la petite tailleuse chinoise offers a more universal story of the imaginative power of great literature to open the eyes of the uneducated. Ironically, a little earlier in the 1950s, the Chinese Communist party itself had made use of heroes of Western and Soviet literature and cinema, moulding them into appropriate socialist role models for young Chinese. The scene in Balzac et la petite tailleuse chinoise in which the boys recount the plots of the North Korean melodramas they have seen at a cinema screening provides an ironic commentary on this practice.
The Little Seamstress herself is played by Xun Zhou who is rapidly becoming an important star in the new Chinese cinema, following in the footsteps of Gong Li who became the beautiful figure at the centre of the Fifth Generation films. Xun Zhou can also be seen in films such as Suzhou River (2000) and Beijing Bicycle (2001). These are set respectively in Shanghai and Beijing and the star plays a much more self aware and sophisticated woman in modern China.
(Notes by Roy Stafford from July 2004)