Until last night I would have instantly named Sweet Sixteen as the best "coming of age" film I've ever seen. Now I must waver after seeing beautifully constructed Sinjie Dai's Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress (Xiao Cai Feng), a 2003 Golden Globe nominee for Best Foreign Film. Why it took three years before reaching the big screen in Phoenix is beyond comprehension--another reprehensible example of how little respect the film distribution industry demonstrates for American audiences. It's a film that will appeal primarily to literary and artistic mentalities since that serves as background for the main characters and isn't detailed within the film's boundaries.
Taking place primarily in early 1970's China, two city boys are sent to a remote village in the isolated Phoenix Mountain region for "re-education," as dictated by the Cultural Revolution. Intellectuals are automatically suspect during this time, so Ma (Ye Liu) and Luo (Kun Chen) are to cleanse themselves of their bourgeois ways by carting fertilizer on their backs and working in the copper mine. Luo's father has been condemned as "an enemy of the state" for once performing dentistry on Chiang Kai-shek. Luo still wants to follow in his father's footsteps while Ma is a gifted musician.
Upon their arrival, the village Chief goes through their possessions, throwing a "bourgeois" cookbook on the fire and nearly doing the same with Ma's violin (thinking it a toy) before Luo convinces him to let Ma play Mozart on it. Ma charms the villagers with the sonata and is allowed to keep his instrument when the Chief is informed that the composition is in honor of Chairman Mao. This Mozart piece becomes a running "joke" throughout the film.
Hearing of a pool where girls from a nearby village frequently bathe, the two boys sneak off for a peek, and both become mesmerized by the beauty of the village tailor's young daughter. Luo outwardly courts the Little Seamstress (Xun Zhou) while Ma secretly pines for her; both realize that they have no chance with her as long as she remains blissfully innocent/ignorant of outside culture. Charming her and the other villagers with their elaborate storytelling recreations based on Korean films, they understand the power of words. So when they seize a cache of forbidden foreign literary works, they discover that the Seamstress loves being read to—especially Balzac—setting up a "Pygmalion" style makeover. While drawing her closer to their world, the literature ironically leads to a place that the boys don't anticipate.
Literature truly can become a life changing experience, and this is expressed more than once during the film. Ma, in particular is touched by Balzac and Flaubert, even going to the trouble of transcribing Balzac's prose inside his jacket. After an all night reading session, he sees the world quite differently. The Little Seamstress also is touched by Balzac, and she's quite sure that this is not just due to the Chinese translator's skill—but Balzac, who convinces her that a "woman's beauty has great value." No longer will she feel so inferior nor can she blindly accept the unspoken "revolutionary" mentality automatically accepted by the Cultural Revolution.
But this is no political drama. One of the best things the film does is illustrate the day to day lifestyle advocated by Mao's teachings and show how various "rebels" adjust and subvert the dogma pragmatically. Ma can still play Mozart and Tchaikovsky by attributing their compositions to Mao or Lenin, and foreign literature can be used as currency for culturally starved physicians. It can even be hidden from illiterates, who may mistake an illustration of Flaubert for Karl Marx. The boys obviously will never truly renounce their education, but will remain undercover intellectuals until the day that the government no longer requires that they hide their talents.
Although the striking photography of the lush mountains with winding stone footpaths set over the foggy valley is enough to recommend the film on its own, Balzac and the Little Seamstress does contain serious structural faults. At one point Luo must leave due to serious illness in the family. This presents no problem since Ma has been the primary protagonist, whose sensitive character is most fully drawn—he is like the ideal best friend that everyone longs to find for his selfless sacrificial service and purity. But Luo slips back into the story so abruptly that his re-entry must be contained in deleted footage. That is forgivable; however, the tacked on ending is a different matter.
Out of sync with all that has preceded it, the film jumps twenty years into the future to give a retrospective look back at those idyllic days in the mountains. Although this provides a trite opportunity to show how the revolutionary proletarian lifestyle has given way to TV satellites and now is scheduled for total obliteration as a water project floods the remote region, it distracts from the main thrust of the poignant narrative. Its best sequences insightfully explore the boys' character (especially Ma) and illustrate how they strive to cope in a confusing world, filling the screen with enough profound moments to warrant multiple viewings and compete for the title of best "coming of age" film.