Upon the international success of his autobiographical novel, Balzac And The Little Chinese Empress, Sijie Dai was widely encouraged to adapt his story for film. And so he did. Co-produced in China and France, the movie version of Balzac And The Little Chinese Empress was released in 2002, and again found wide success. It was released in the U.S. this summer.
The film is a cry for personal freedom set within a story of young love. But it is a story of other loves as well, ultimately exploring love between friends and among a people. It reveals the sacrifices one friend will make for another while questioning whether solidarity in pursuit of a higher ideal, and the sacrifice of one’s individual growth, will uplift or destroy a people.
The time is the early 1970s, and Mao’s China is in the throes of the Cultural Revolution, the Party’s campaign to purge all independent intellectual (and by extension, counterrevolutionary) thought and all trappings of social class beyond the proletariat. Two young men have been separated from their “rotten dogs’ heads” parents (a common epithet for bourgeois Chinese) and banished to a remote village where, constrained to the hard labor of the peasants, they will be “re-educated.” They fall in love, each in his own way, with the granddaughter of the hamlet’s tailor, a coquettish innocent just ripe for their subversions as they read to her from the French and early Russian classics, romantic works of free will and even, opulence.
We come to know the Little Seamstress by her title; only the boys, Ma and Luo, are distinguished with given names, leaving the peasants to be titled according to their role in society: thus, of the people we know only “the Tailor,” “the Head of the Village,” “the Wife of the Head of the Village,” etc. The Little Seamstress and Luo become lovers. She realizes she is pregnant while Luo is on leave tending to his ailing father. Ma secures a clandestine abortion for her, offering passages from Balzac to the doctor in return for his services, then selling the hungry physician his coveted violin.
The arts—literature, music and film—become potent objects of desire for everyone as the boys entice the villagers now with readings, playful retellings of staid Communist movie plots, and Mozart played on Ma’s to-be-sacrificed violin.
Thanks to the world opened to her by the boys’ tutelage, the Little Seamstress grows out of the confinements of small village life; she bobs her hair and sets off into the world, stinging Luo with the words: “I’m going because of Balzac.” In giving her his love, Luo has given her the freedom not to love him in return. His is a much different sacrifice than the one that the individual is compelled to make for Chinese society. Luo later reveals to Ma the Seamstress’s confession that what Balzac most taught her was “A woman’s beauty is a priceless thing.”
She is last traced to Hong Kong, mecca of marketable goods, to ply her wares, clearly having chosen personal freedom over community, family, even conjugal love.
Perhaps Dai was unaware of the implications of her choice and saw commodifying the Little Seamstress’ beauty as a way to individuate away from the drab sameness of the workers’ expressions, their dress, their lives. But her choice is, ultimately, a damning comment on our civilization as well. Balzac, in another of his quoted pieties, says, “To combine beauty and intelligence is a rare thing.” Not having either the desire or the confidence—we are not privy to which—to learn to read for herself and be truly enlightened, it seems the Little Chinese Seamstress has opted for a less evolved way out. It is regrettable that, as a woman, she hasn’t chosen a more liberating path.
Despite the filmmaker’s fuzziness, or his own less enlightened views, the film is worth viewing. It is well-paced, languorous yet not slow, revealing with feeling the harshness of th