Dai Sijie’s film adaptation of his autobiographical novel is a visually lush and very Westernized vision of life in a remote Chinese village in the early 1970s. Since the book has been a bestseller in France, the country where Dai has been living for more than 15 years, this handsomely produced and quite romantic pic should prove an attraction for Gallic cinema-goers. There’s a good chance of arthouse success in other territories, too, though the film may not attract the most positive critical support it needs to become a major player in niche markets. Ancillary is a given.
As a youth, Dai was forced to leave the city and undergo “re-education” by working with peasants in a remote mountain region of the country. His film deals with two young men, Luo (Chen Kun) and Ma (Liu Ye), who have been condemned, as the sons of “reactionary intellectuals” (Luo’s father was Chiang Kai-shek’s dentist), to learn about life from the illiterate inhabitants of a mountain village located in a spectacular area of lakes, waterfalls and amazing rock formations.
The young men are forced to carry overflowing barrels filled with human excrement (used as fertilizer) and to undertake other manual chores, while at the same time being carefully supervised by the village Head Man (Wang Shuangbao), who is always on the lookout for any deviation from Maoist doctrine. When the boys produce a violin, an instrument the villagers have never seen before, it’s considered to be a bourgeois toy, until Ma persuades the Head Man that Mozart and Beethoven were inspired by Mao and Lenin; only then is he allowed to play their music.
Both boys fall under the spell of the beautiful granddaughter (Ziiou Xun) of the local tailor (Chung Zhijun). They never know her name, referring to her only as “the little seamstress,” but she captivates them with her innocence and sensuality. They decide to do a little re-educating themselves when they discover a hidden suitcase filled with banned books by Western writers, mostly French — Flaubert, Dumas and Balzac among them. They read these works to the little seamstress for hours on end in a secret grotto they use as a meeting place, and she gradually comes to love Balzac and his characters. Eventually, Luo and the seamstress become lovers, but their romance comes to an abrupt end when he is recalled home and she finds herself pregnant.
The film is a very romanticized view of a harsh period in recent Chinese history, and the casting of three beautiful young actors in the leading roles only emphasizes the air of unreality, despite the authentic locations used. This is basically the stuff of a traditional Hollywood, or French, melodrama — two guys in love with the same innocent girl, separation, loss — and then a coda in which, years later, the men meet and wonder whatever happened to the girl they once loved.
The material is certainly predictable, but Dai and his mixed French-Chinese production team handle it with great confidence. Ziiou Xun, the young actress who made her mark in “Beijing Bicycle” and “Suzhou River,” is radiantly beautiful as the peasant heroine, while her co-stars, Chen Kun and Liu Ye, make the most of their roles as the city kids who adapt all too easily to life in the mountains. Production values are pristine, with Jean Marie Dreujou’s location photography quite breathtaking.