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How provincial is the province where no one has heard the name
Of Dumas or Dostoyevsky or the books that earned them fame!
Why are some so sadly eager to commit the page to flame?

Do not heed the narrow tyrant quick to outlaw and condemn.
Read the words or listen close, and you may find a worthy gem,
But beware that written words have ravished many, changing them.

Rating: G (should be PG for light language and a few mature themes)

Language: Chinese and French w/ English subtitles

Born in China and now settled in France, director Dai Sijie obviously has deep ties to the story of Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, which he adapted himself from his first novel of the same name. Set during China’s Communist Cultural Revolution, it follows his own personal experience of spending three years in a rural re-education camp from 1971 to 1974.

From the very start, the film’s tone is clear. While the village’s devoted Communist Chief promptly burns a cookbook for mentioning chicken because it is too bourgeois, the new arrivals Ma and Luo convince him to preserve Ma’s violin by insisting that Mozart wrote music with Chairman Mao in mind. Like the film overall, the scene is a little pitiful and a little funny, but it clinches the role that music and Western civilization play in helping the oppressed feel human again. Love can do the same thing, and when a tailor visits with his beautiful granddaughter, this “Little Seamstress” wins the hearts of both young men. She, like most of these country folk, is sadly ignorant, and they commit themselves to transform her with their “reactionary” Western ideas.

Based on the mention of re-education camps, I might have thought that this was some dark, murderous picture of persecution like The Killing Fields, but it’s not. In fact, there’s a notable lack of life-or-death danger here. With their forbidden books, the three friends are always in danger of being found out by the semi-vigilant Chief. As an authority figure, though, he’s less like a severe commandant and more like an inattentive parent, who barely notices when his charges sneak behind him with banned ideas and hidden abortions and fibs that prey on his ignorance.

At the same time, these work camps are rather effective, forcing many into a mindset of fear and submission. Yet the stories and concepts that Ma and Luo and the Seamstress keep and slowly spread to others also disseminate a starry-eyed freedom. Can you imagine such a beautiful, exotic name as Ursule Mirouet? Can you imagine a poor man becoming a wealthy count like Edmond Dantes? It’s ironic that, at a time when burning a bra was seen as liberating to women in the U.S., its introduction had an empowering effect on the Little Seamstress, leading to a bittersweet choice.

There’s a “Hitler Reacts” YouTube video (parodying a famous scene from Downfall), in which he decries Balzac’s ending and questions the point of the entire story. However, the film overall has that romantic quality of someone reminiscing, perhaps not of the best years of their life but the most memorable. Like all memories, they are swallowed by the floods of time but not forgotten.

Rank: List Runner-Up

© 2015 S. G. Liput

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