(director/writer: Dai Sijie; screenwriters: Nadine Perront/based on the novel by Mr. Dai; cinematographer: Jean Marie Dreujou; editor: Fleur Augustin/Nicolas Duchemin/Bérengère Saint-Bezar, Zoé Forget/Alice Godeau; music: Wang Pujian; cast: Zhou Xun (Little Chinese Seamstress), Chen Kun (Luo), Liu Ye (Ma), Chung Zhijun (Old Tailor), Wang Shuangbao (Village Head), (Tianlu Chen (Head of the Camp), Hongwei Wang (Four Eyes); Runtime: 111; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Bernard Lorain/Wang Zhebin; Empire Pictures; 2002-France/China-in Mandarin and French with English subtitles)

“A dullish though quite watchable lyrical coming-of-age love triangle drama set in the 1970s during the Chinese Cultural Revolution.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A dullish though quite watchable lyrical coming-of-age love triangle drama set in the 1970s during the Chinese Cultural Revolution of Mao (from 1966-1976). It’s based on the director Dai Sijie’s 2001 bestselling autobiographical book.

It has teenager bourgeois well-educated city boys Ma (Ye Liu) and his best friend Luo (Kun Chen), along with hordes of others, sent to rural Phoenix Mountain, near the North Korea border, as part of Chairman Mao’s reeducation program for the disgraced enemies of the state. Ma’s father is a physician; Luo’s the son of a reactionary dentist, disgraced for giving Chiang Kai-shek a filling.

The boys work with the peasants under the supervision of the ignorant director of the camp (Tianlu Chen), who at first considers Ma’s violin to be a toy for the bourgeoisie but reconsiders burning it when the fast thinking boys have Ma play him a Mozart sonata and tell him it’s entitled “Mozart Is Always Thinking of Chairman Mao.”

The boys toil away hauling baskets of ore from a mine shaft and carting buckets of human waste to be used as fertilizer for the area farms. Their depression is lifted when they meet the cute “Little Seamstress” (Xun Zhou), the granddaughter of the village’s old tailor (Zhijun Chung), and both become smitten with her even though she has no sense of culture. The boys other pleasure comes when the Little Seamstress tells them a city lad nicknamed Four Eyes (Hongwei Wang), also serving time in the re-education program, is hiding a suitcase filled with forbidden books of Western literature: Balzac, Gogol, Flaubert, Stendhal, and Dostoyevsky. Four Eyes denies his contraband, fearing severe punishment if caught by the Security Office. The boys steal the books from Four Eyes, and Luo who is now romantically linked to the illiterate Little Seamstress acts as her tutor using Balzac’s “Cousin Bette” to teach her how to read.

The film moves from one cliche to another, and in episodic form it leads to an unexpected tragedy. Dai’s bestseller might have been a great read in literature, attesting to the emancipating power of books, but his filmmaking skills are suspect. The film becomes plodding and spends too much time telling us nothing we didn’t know before about the evils of modern Chinese history. The ill-advised third act flashes forward to the 1990s when the camp is history (it tearfully gives way to a new modern electric dam) and to a time China has entered its new phase of economic development. The film loses its momentum as it has these newly introduced characters thereby try to comprehend the events of their youth from their new perspective, if they can. The Ma character is modeled after Dai, who since 1984 has lived in France after dwelling in a re-education camp for three years (1971-1974).

Though the film was allowed to be made in China, it cannot be shown there.