Movie Review: Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress

By Joan K. Widdifield, Psy.D
Movie Magazine International
“Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress” is an inspired jewel that tells the story of life in a re-education camp during Mao Xuedong’s Proletarian Cultural Revolution. It takes place in a tiny town in the mist-shrouded mountains of Sichuan in 1971, toward the end of the Revolution. With government policies espousing control and the suppression of knowledge, art, and literature, two urban teenagers Luo (Chen Kun) and Ma (Liu Ye) are sent to the camp and made to do backbreaking work starting with hauling slopping human feces on their backs up steep rocky paths to use as fertilizer. The boys' parents have bourgeois professions and are called “enemies of the people”.

At the center of the story is the relationship between the boys and “the little seamstress,” (Zhou Xun ) a naive and charming young beauty who lives with her old tailor grandfather (Chung Zhijun). The boys find out she is uneducated and are impassioned to teach her how to read. They steal a cache of Western classics from a secretive intellectual and read to her whenever they can slip away to their clandestine meeting place. Their relationships blossom along with their internal worlds. All the characters, from the boys to the illiterate commune chief are vibrant.

“Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress” is adapted from co-writer/director Dai Sijie’s mostly autobiographical first novel of the same name. Knowing that the director lived through a similar experience makes the story especially moving. Sijie conveys a sentiment of wistfulness and discovery rather than resentment or regret.

The story is infused with charming humor and each character has redemptive qualities. The boys use wit to survive their oppressive circumstances. When the commune chief threatens to burn Luo’s violin, Luo plays a sonata saying that it is called “Mozart is thinking of Chairman Mao.” The chief pretends he knows who Mozart is and says, “Mozart is always thinking of Chairman Mao.” The boys are sent to the nearby town to watch communist propaganda films to re-tell them to the other campers. Instead, they secretly embellish the stories from their novels, and the audience is riveted on their every word.

At the end, the story shifts to the 1990’s and we see how exposure to the books affected the characters. The film celebrates books and their transformative power and the drive to pursue art and literature. Each character exposed to the literature has been changed forever.

For Movie Magazine, this is Joan Widdifield. ©
Air date: August 31, 2005
More Information:
Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress
2002; Written, Directed, and Screenplay by Sijie Dai; In Mandarin and French