One of my great joys in life is reading a good book. Ever since I was a child and my dad read a couple of pages of The Hobbit to me every night, there has been something just magical about being able to escape into a new world created by someone else, to get lost in their words and descriptions and imaginations. It’s so hard for me to imagine a world where all of the great books have been burned and the only ones that I can read have been selected for me by the government. The joy of literature and a discovering a great writer’s words in a world where it is forbidden is one of the major themes in the beautiful and under-stated 2002 drama, Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress.

The movie is about two best friends in 1971, Luo and Ma, who have been sent to a remote village in the mountains of China to be “re-educated”, that is to say to be purged of any aspects of their life that go against Maoist doctrine. They have been sent there because their family are bourgeois. Luo and Ma know how to read, play foreign musical instruments, and know of far-away lands. In the village, they are forced to do constant and demeaning physical labor so that they learn what it means to be a “revolutionary peasant”. While in the town, they meet a local girl who is only ever called the “Little Seamstress” in the film that both boys fall in love with. They compete with each other for the girl’s affection. The biggest way that they get themselves into her life is by showing her a secret stash of forbidden books that they stole from another boy in the town. Through the forbidden works of foreigners, the boys and the girl learn of a world far removed from their little village in the mountains.

The film was beautifully shot on location and like the last film I reviewed, Black Robe, the scenery is breath-taking. The exotic mountain-side of China is a beautiful and haunting place and much of the beauty and power of the film comes from an interplay between the grand majesty of their surroundings compared against the tragic circumstances of their politics. The performances of the three leads are spot on as well. Their chemistry as a group was fantastic and even while competing for the love of the Little Seamstress, the bonds of their friendship seemed unbreakable thanks to the acting chops of the stars. Not to mention that there were countless little beautiful little scenes that kept you locked in the story of the film such as Luo and Ma narrating a film they saw in town to the villagers to telling the story of The Count of Monte Cristo to a local tailor.

The movie wasn’t perfect. There were pacing problems every now and then. And the camera work was spotty. The picture often looked blurry and out of focus. But, at the end of the day, this was a beautiful love story and look at the history of China’s Cultural Revolution through the eyes of three smart, young people. If you can handle subtitles and under-stated drama, you should give this one a go.

Final Score: B+

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