Director Dai Sijie has filmed an adaptation of his own bestselling novel Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, a metamorphosis sufficiently rare to excite curiosity. Though the film lacks some of the paper incarnation’s subtlety, Dai’s infidelity to his own text keeps things interesting. He busts the book’s brief time frame, tweaks countless plot points, and tops it all off with a titanic metaphor not found in his own pages.
During the Cultural Revolution, two teenage friends, Ma and Luo (Ye Liu and Kun Chen, at times remarkably similar looking and sort of gayish), toil
away in a mountain village as part of their “re-education.” The children of disgraced intellectuals, they lug night soil, grunt in a mine, and occasionally visit a nearby town to watch North Korean films, which they then act out for their less mobile comrades. A new world opens for them after they pilfer a fellow son-of-a-bourgie’s forbidden stash of translated French novels—and fall in love with the LCS in question. (“You’re so clean for a local girl,” Luo says in awe, coining a pickup line you should try.)
The novel, at once direct and elliptical, conveys the threesome’s thrill at the breathy inspiration found in their contraband Balzac. The movie at times recalls a Dead Poets Society retread—there’s only so much impassioned book-quoting anyone should have to hear—though when the LCS talks about seeing airplanes pass overhead and wonders “what the world is like elsewhere,” fans of Jia Zhangke’s The World will note a coincidental link to a scene in that movie. These are places, in the same country and 30 years apart, where the promised future never quite happens.
In this elastic revision, Ma eventually moves to France (where Dai himself has lived since 1984). He watches as China goes forward on the massive Three Gorges Dam project, which will obliterate the town of his bittersweet youth. When the programmed flood hits, don’t be surprised if some lachrymal waterworks get going as well.