Beware Refinement: A Review of Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress

Diane Mason Jul 20, 2005


Xun Zhou plays the seamstress of the title and the romantic interest of two bourgeois youth who are relocated to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution.

The problem with the new Chinese film Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, based on the international best-seller by Dai Sijie, is that it glorifies refinement, and the bourgeois brand of European refinement at that. While it has its uses, people who exalt this quality, as of “classical” music and ballet, often disparage the sophistication of non-European art and the vigor of working-class culture, as at one time with jazz and more recently with hip-hop.

Co-scripted by Sijie and Nadine Perront, Balzac trivializes the continental upheaval of the Cultural Revolution by reducing it to a foolish, if essentially harmless, punishment of privileged youth. “Grievance literature,” which recounts the privations of China’s formerly privileged classes during the mass upheavals of China’s communist years, has become a cottage industry. Following in the footsteps of Jung Chang’s memoir Wild Swans, grievance lit narrows its focus to personal relationships and the opportunities they provide for satire. History is told by isolated anecdote.

Ma and Luo (played by Ye Liu and Kun Chen) are sent to a remote mountain village for Maoist re-education. Scorned as the sons of “reactionary intellectuals,” they do hard labor in the copper mines and fall in love with the spunky seamstress of the title (played by Xun Zhou), the granddaughter of a locally renowned tailor.

Ma’s violin, thought to be a bourgeois toy, is spared because he says he’s playing Mozart, which sounds to the unworldly peasants like something to do with Mao. On the same lines, one of the foreign novels the boys get hold of is overlooked because a photo it contains of a bearded European is assumed to be that of Marx. The villagers are enchanted by the violin music and by the stories the boys weave from their clandestine readings when they are supposedly reporting on movies from Albania and Korea. In other words, Ma and Luo respond to repressive circumstances with good old-fashioned subversion. Dalliance with forbidden culture is the form subversion takes here, and that’s okay. But the film encourages the viewer to identify with the upper classes and mocks the way poor, unsophisticated people digest revolutionary theory. The bourgeois world was horrified at the Cultural Revolution. And sure, discomfort and even great suffering can ensue from how “unwashed masses” deal with their former rulers when given power over them. But why should we be horrified when we barely bat an eyelash over the mass impoverishment and degradation that precipitate rebellion in the first place?

“We” are assumed to be privileged ourselves. The broad suffering that most of the world endures never seems quite real, or at least not related to “us.” We only become concerned about extreme conditions when we’re directly threatened, or when they suggest a potential threat to our kind. To wit, how “we” reacted to 9/11 – and to the Cultural Revolution.

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