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Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress

A Lovely Adaptation

What happens when a failed filmmaker turns to literature, fictionalizes a part of his life only to become a best-selling author, and then returns back to filmmaking to adapt his own book? The chances are high that it would result in failure. Filmmaker cum writer cum filmmaker Dai Sijie's Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress is the exception -- both the book and the movie are excellent.

Ma (Ye Liu) and Luo (Kun Chen) are the sons of bourgeoisie parents who are sent to a remote province in the mountains in order to be re-educated, i.e. to have the middle class worked out of them. Lucky for them, they get sent to an area famous for its pretty young ladies. I guess carrying bucket loads of feces and urine up terraced farmlands and doing backbreaking work in a mine teaches you a lot of valuable lessons, such as how to steal contraband material like western books and flirt with girls.

After both boys fall for an unbelievably adorable young woman, known simply as the Little Chinese Seamstress (Xun Zhou), they embark on a (quite condescending yet genuine) mission of sorts to free the illiterate peasant girl from her so-called ignorance by deciding to teach her how to read. After they hear about a secret stash of classics, featuring most notably Balzac, they hatch a plan to get their culturally deprived hands on the banned material, which they subsequently read aloud to the Seamstress over long afternoons.

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress is both funny and poignant. In one particularly funny scene, since Luo's father is a dentist, he is commission by the village chief to fill a gaping cavity. The result is a hilarious scene of experimental dental work with Vaudevillian antics reminiscent of a "MacGyver" episode. In addition, they are several breathtaking shots that emphasize the lovely landscape. One of which includes an indelible scene in which Ma wades through the Yangtze River during twilight during a festival in which hundreds of paper boats carrying lit candles are floating on the water.

Sijie does an amazing job in adapting his work onto the screen, creating a film that is even more memorable and touching than the novel itself. He does make a few notable changes to the original plot, but these only serve to enhance rather than impede. Although, perhaps, the ending would have been more powerful if left as is. However, if you haven't read the book, you wouldn't know the difference.

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress is a charming story that is essentially about friendship, love and the power of literature. The novels the characters read literally transform their lives and are a true testament to the power of art. As one character says, "Sometimes a book can affect your whole life." I couldn't agree more.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars