With the titular protagonist of Balzac’s Ursule Mirouet as her guiding archetype of innocent, indefatigable femininity, a mountain village tailor’s granddaughter known only as the Little Seamstress (Zhou Xun) struggles to transcend her Mao-decreed ignorance in Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress. Written and directed by Dai Sijie (whose semi-autobiographical novel is the film’s basis), this blandly sweet French-Chinese co-production about anti-socialist self-definition tells the story of the Little Seamstress’s intellectual awakening in 1971 thanks to Luo (Chen Kun) and Ma (Liu Ye), two city-dwelling friends sent to a re-education camp deep within the rural Phoenix Mountains—and next door to Little Seamstress’s tiny community—as punishment for their parents’ “reactionary” tendencies during the Cultural Revolution.
Confronted by devout adherents to Mao’s Little Red Book at their new prison-camp home, defiant Luo and Ma seek subversion whenever possible, whether it be justifying their “bourgeois” violin by deviously telling the local chief that a Mozart lieder is titled “Mozart Is Always Thinking Of Chairman Mao” or stealing forbidden literature secretly owned by a writer named Four-Eyes (Wang Hongwei) and then reading the wondrous tomes to the illiterate Little Seamstress in a cave dubbed “The Book Grotto.” Their clandestine devouring of proto-feminist novels by Flaubert and Balzac—juxtaposed against the medieval idiocy spawned by the country’s pro-proletarian doctrine, such as Luo being treated for malaria with merciless flogging—is an act of rebellion against state-mandated philistinism, just as Luo and Ma’s embroidered recitations of communist North Korean films serve as a tribute to the enlightening power of the imagination.
Though Sijie’s attempts to ignite a Jules and Jim romantic triangle rarely spark and his observant, deliberate direction lends the film a benign lack of urgency, there’s something nonetheless mildly seductive about his linking of passion (of both the heart-pumping and mind-stimulating variety) with the wild, untamable jungle that envelops his characters. If it concluded 10 minutes earlier, Sijie’s slight, faintly lyrical paean to the cerebral and coital stimulation spawned by personal sovereignty might have coasted by on its gentle humanism. A 2001-set finale involving the re-education camp (and the ghosts of its past inhabitants) drowning underwater to make way for a modern electricity-generating endeavor, however, finally finds Balzac succumbing to the dull, sloppy obviousness it had previously worked so hard to skirt.