Subscribe to the APA Newsletter
Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, Dai Sijie's film adapation of his own best-selling novel, isn't as faithful as one would expect, but the shmaltzy romance, simple townsfolk, and awesome vistas should surprise nobody.
Comparing a film adaptation to the original novel is an easy and obvious approach film critics like to employ whenever the cinematic incarnation fails to spark discussion beyond the cliché “the book was better." But Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress is a special case, not only for the rare fact that the director and the original author are the same person, but because their creator Dai Sijie turns out to be a somewhat more interesting filmmaker than novelist.
For those unfamiliar with the 2001 bestselling novel or the 2002 film (which is finally receiving a limited U.S. release although it’s been available on DVD throughout the world for some time), Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress follows two urban teens sent to the countryside for “re-education” during China’s Cultural Revolution. There, they seduce the town’s inhabitants by acting out films seen abroad and European novels read illegally, while both falling in love with the local tailor’s daughter.
Dai himself was “re-educated” in the '70s, and after moving to France in 1984, became a film director with the award-winning China, My Sorrow in 1989, which also detailed certain tragedies of the Cultural Revolution. Thus Dai is no stranger to the territory covered by Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, although my problem with his novel is that it does little new with the re-education melodrama which, since the '80s, has already undergone countless literary and cinematic manifestations. What the novel had, however, was the extra dimension of being what could be considered “exile fiction.” Written originally in French, the language of the novel’s narration suggests the life of the first-person narrator beyond the '70s and beyond Asia. But unlike Ha Jin, another mainland novelist now based in the West, Dai is far too willing to ignite obvious binaries (for example: sophisticated urbanites versus ignorant hicks) and corner characters in conundrums straight out of second-rate thrillers. Further, Dai lacks the ability to sensitively depict the patient experience of time across epic historical transformation, as in a novel like Ha Jin’s Waiting.
Dai’s film version suffers from all of these shortcomings, and worse yet, until the film’s final moments, doesn’t have an equivalent of the French narration to locate the characters in their historical and geopolitical positions. Instead, the film plays like a standard Chinese film “critical” of the Cultural Revolution period; in other words, it’s the kind of safe, gorgeous, well-acted film that bourgeois audiences in their film festivals and art houses dig up because it’s “dangerous,” as if the Chinese government today really cares that fluffy romances are being made about a period everyone -- Chinese included -- knows was a mistake. Hell, the novel and film are about how Western bourgeois music and literature provide the only glimmer of humanity in an era of Communist oppression. In fact, the two young men are considered clever by the audience because they know how to hide illegal Western music behind such song titles as “Mozart is Thinking of Chairman Mao,” while the little Chinese seamstress is “liberated” from Communism by Balzac’s Cousin Bette and Flaubert’s Madame Bovary.
The film’s design reflects the outdatedness of Balzac’s social “critique” as well as its self-Orientalism. Lots of sweeping visuals here: mountain trails for trekking and ponds for skinny-dipping shot by French cinematographer Jean-Marie Dreujou (who did some of Patrice Lecoste’s pictures). The production designer and costume designer are both former collaborators of Zhang Yimou, who used to make these sorts of social critiques back when they still possessed some venom. Like Ann Hu’s recent Beauty Remains, another transnational production by a diasporic mainland filmmaker, Balzac looks and sounds perfect but fits less into the model of China’s early '90s historical melodramas than that genre of foreign films with blunted political bite but crowd-pleasing potential due to its exotic locations and adorably backward characters.
Zhou Xun, who plays the little Chinese seamstress, continues to confirm my suspicion that she, while a fine actress, is becoming typecast as the enigmatic, wide-eyed beauty who male characters voyeuristically pursue (often resulting in love triangles), in pictures made by a young generation of Chinese directors (“sixth generation” or otherwise) who perhaps have seen Jeanne Moreau in Jules et Jim one time too many. Let us count the ways: Lou Ye’s Suzhou River, Wang Xiaoshui’s Beijing Bicycle, Gao Xiaosong’s Where Have All the Flowers Gone, Yim Ho’s A West Lake Moment, Li Shaohong’s Baober in Love, and Dai Sijie’s film. In many ways she’s the hipper Chinese director’s Zhang Ziyi (Zhou can also be seen in Fruit Chan’s Hollywood Hong Kong and Peter Chan’s upcoming Perhaps Love), but it seems to be in roles that force her into clichés of female beauty easily palatable for global art house audiences raised on Jean Seberg, Bibi Andersson, and Anna Karina.
And then there’s the final act of Dai’s Balzac, which for me doesn’t make the film any more affecting, but proves that Dai is in fact a more cerebral filmmaker than he is a novelist. The novel ends with a boy-loses-girl “ah-ha” standard to countless male coming-of-age romances. The film then makes up for the lack of French narration (albeit far too late into the film) by going way beyond the Cultural Revolution, into the '80s when the hero immigrates to France, and then into the late '90s when he nostalgically returns to the village of his “re-education," which will soon be site of a massive dam project (Three Gorges allegory alert!). That Dai is willing to stretch his story to address issues of the present is admirable, but the ending is forced, and worse yet, the dam controversy fails to explore how the injustices of the Cultural Revolution are relapsing today in new projects such as the Three Gorges Dam, beyond the kind of unsubstantial love story Dai staples to the end of his story. However, I will admit that while Dai the filmmaker is definitely boxed in by certain generic conventions, in the case of the film’s ending, he has the guts to stick his head out of that box, and though it stands out as clumsy, it proves he wants to do more than simply film his own novel.
Date Posted: 9/8/2005