Political Film Society - Newsletter #233 -September 1, 2005

September 1, 2005


Balzac and the Little Chinese SeamstressIn 1971, when the Cultural Revolution was in full swing, two teenagers in Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress (Balzac et la petite tailleuse chinoise) are sentenced to reeducation for four years in Mount Phoenix, a remote area in Sichuan of breathtaking beauty, because of the "bourgeois crimes" of their fathers. Luo (played by Kun Chen) is a dentist's son, Ma (played by Ye Liu) a budding musician. They are now required to carry human waste as a crop fertilizer, to work in filthy copper mines, to translate approved foreign films for the locals, to tow the party line of Chairman Mao, and to pretend that they are not bored with the simple life among illiterate peasants. At the top of the social hierarchy are the local party official as well as the tailor; all others are considered revolutionary peasants. The two handsome city boys attract the tailor's daughter (played by Xun Zhou), the local seamstress, to whom they read from a chest of forbidden literary works found in the hut of another city boy undergoing reeducation. They are not physically strong, often spilling watery fecal material on themselves while climbing uphill to the fields, yet they persist, even learning how to sew from the tailor. On one occasion, Ma contracts malaria, which is eradicated by whipping his back with switches made from branches of a herbal bush; during the ordeal, he remains silent. Meanwhile, the seamstress falls in love with Luo, has a child and then an abortion, and at the end of the film walks away to live in the nearest town, saying that what motivates her to leave are the words of Balzac, which tell her that "A woman's beauty is a priceless treasure" and otherwise speak of a world beyond her home. The scene then shifts to the present. Luo and Ma are now successful, the former as a dentist, the latter as a musician. On television, they see that Mount Phoenix's beautiful scenery is flooded for the Three Gorges Dam, displacing 2 million to provide electricity for 200 million. Based on director Dai Sijie's semiautobiographical novel, the film imparts some nostalgia for the era when China was nearly a classless society as well as regrets that the quest for prosperity is tearing apart the landscape and reestablishing a class society, yet the film is banned in China because authorities cannot believe that foreign novels might inspire Chinese to change their lives. MH




China is giving the economy top priority, so capital accumulation for the rich is more important than the standard of life among ordinary Chinese. For those leaving the provinces for the bustling cities, life is frantic. Whereas So Close to Paradise (2001) illustrates the situation in Wuhan, The World (Shijie), directed by Jia Zhangke, focuses on Beijing, in particular a themepark where a fifteen-minute monorail ride goes around scaled-down replicas of the Arc de Triumph, Big Ben, the Egyptian pyramids, the Eiffel Tower, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, St. Mark's Square in Venice, St. Peter's Square, the Taj Mahal, the World Trade Center towers, and more--along with dance spectaculars. The story offers a slice in the lives of the lowest-level twentysomething employees of World Park--dancers, security guards, and their friends, most of whom are presumably from Shanxi Province. When the film begins, Tao (played by Zhao Tao), a dancer, cries out for a band-aid; she has an injured foot. From that point on, all the characters cry out in one way or another about injuries to their psychological well-being. Lacking family in Beijing, the men crave female companionship, but the women suffer from being jilted after men have taken them into the bedroom, so the battle of the sexes undergirds the plot. Most attention focuses on Taisheng (played by Chen Taishen), a security guard. His girlfriend, Tao (played by Jing Dong Liang), has recently broken up with someone, so she is cautious and plays hard to get until Taisheng infuriates her by getting on top, exposing her breasts, and asking her to prove her love. Eventually, he shifts his attention to a dressmaker, Qun (played by Qun Yiqun), who has been waiting eight years to get a visa to join her husband in Paris, which he reached as a survivor of a shipload of illegal immigrants. When she gets the visa, Taisheng again seeks a girl who is willing to serve his body. Meanwhile, Niu (played by Zhongwei Jiang) is in love with Wei (played by Jing Jue), who refuses to disclose her whereabouts to him despite his insistence on knowing where she is all the time. When she tires of being asked to report her movements and declares an end to the relationship, Niu starts to burn his jacket, , whereupon Wei responds by putting out the flame, and they are soon married. What The World exposes most sharply are the unsafe living and working conditions, which result in three otherwise avoidable deaths, amid the mass society that China is creating by allowing the economy to run amuk. As a footnote of sorts, four Russian women arrive to join the dance troupe, but they are coerced into surrendering their passports, thus assuring that they will be kept in slave conditions, a theme that has been thoroughly explored in Tricky Life (2002) and Lilja 4-Ever (2003). MH