Xiao cai feng (Balzac and the Little Seamstress) (2002)




Director:     Sijie Dai. 

Starring:     Xun Zhou (Little Chinese Seamstress),  Kun Chen (Luo),  Ye Liu (Ma),  Shuangbao Wang (Head of the Village),  Zhijun Cong (Old Tailor),  Hongwei Wang (Four Eyes),  Xiong Xiao (Mother of Four Eyes),  Zuohui Tang (Old Mill Worker),  Wei Chen (Wife of the Head of the Village),  Tianlu Chen (Director of the Commune),  Qing-yun Fan (Doctor). 

two young men sent for re-education in the Cultural Revolution fall in love with the same mountain woman


Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire film. 

Four young people climb up Phoenix Mountain to their place of re-education.  They sing a song:  "We're the Red Guards of Chairman Mao, who came from the steppes of Tiananmen Square."  Ma Jianling says he first climbed these steps in 1971.  He came with his friend Luo Min.  They had marched for two days to get to their re-education place. 

Flashback.  At re-education the chief asks Lou Min about his reactionary parents.  He says that his father, a dentist, treated an enemy of the people, the former local governor.  And before 1949, he fitted a tooth for that scum, Chiang Kai Chek.  The chief goes through Ma Jianling's possessions.  He is upset when he finds a very "bourgeois" cookbook that the mountain people would never be able to use.  The chief burns the cookbook.  He says the fellows will work hard and eat cabbage and another vegetable.  Then the chief finds a violin.  No one seems to know what it is except for Luo Min and Ma Jianling.  They pass it around for the other students to look at.  The chief is going to burn it, when the guys finally tell him that it is a musical instrument.  The head man has Ma Jianling play the violin.  He wants a revolutionary tune, but Ma Jianling does not know one.  So he says he will play:  "Mozart Thinking about Chairman Mao".   This makes the chief happy.  Ma Jianling does a great job on the music. 

One of the jobs the two fellows have to do is to take huge buckets of excrement on their backs down to the river.  The bucket is heavy and bulky and has to be carried tied to their backs.  Often the excrement spills over onto the clothes of the young men.  They also have to help work in the mines. 

The guys hear about the beautiful girls at the waterfall and they travel out there.  They watch the girls playing in the water.  Luo Min falls into the water and then down into a deep hole.  This alerts the girls to his presence.  Ma Jianling hides.  The young ladies look down on Luo Min.  They tell him they are good girls so they are not going to denounce him.  Otherwise he would have had to tell his story to the Public Security Office.  But they do say he should be ashamed of himself.  They laugh and leave. 

At a meeting with the chief and the group, the tailor and his daughter come in to hear the music of Ma Jianling.  Luo Min recognizes the daughter, known as Little Seamstress, as the young lady he saw down by the waterfall.  He tells Ma Jianling about her.  Little Seamstress is fascinated by the alarm clock in the room.  When the girls are alone they take the alarm clock apart.  The two guys come in and see the clock in pieces on the table.  The Little Seamstress tells them that she will repay them from the clock.  But Luo Min thinks he can put it back together.  The mountain girl tells Luo Min that it's not much fun here on the mountain.  She says she often dreams of going elsewhere.  Luo Min tells her that he will teach her how to read, but she says, no.  She doesn't have the time.  Ma Jianling asks Little Seamstress and is given permission to take one of the mountain girl's carved airplanes. 

The guys attend a meeting of the Revolutionary Committee of Phoenix Mountain.  A young fellow called Four Eyes speaks in front of the group.  He is the son a a writer father and a poet mother.  The committee members praise him for learning various farming skills.  Luo Min asks Little Seamstress to eat with them on Sunday, but she says she can't because she is going to the hot springs with her girlfriends. 

The two pals are sent to see a revolutionary film from North Korea.  They are to come back and tell the story to the others.  The fellows watch the film after eating some hearty noodle soup.  When they return they relate the story to the people.  Ma Jianling later finds Little Seamstress laying down on the ground next to Luo Min.  He comes and lays down on the other side of Little Seamstress.  She holds the hands of both fellows. 

When the Cultural Revolution came, many of the forbidden books were burned.  But Little Seamstress says that Four Eyes has a suitcase of forbidden books.  The guys are really happy to hear this.  They go to Four Eyes and ask him if they can read some of his forbidden books.  Four Eyes says he threw the suitcase of forbidden books down a ravine. 

On a walk Ma Jianling sends his two friends on ahead.  He decides to make a fire, cook some sweet potatoes and wait for their return.  Ma Jianling meets the poet mother of Four Eyes coming to see her son.  She says that Four Eyes is returning with her to he city.  Ma Jianling runs to find his two friends.  He tells them about Four Eyes leaving for the city.  Little Seamstress suggests that they steal a certain suitcase.  The girls put on a show for Four Eyes and the others.  This gives the two fellows a chance to break into the room of Four Eyes and look for the suitcase and the books. 

The guys are having a hard time finding any forbidden books.  Four Eyes develops abdominal cramps and has to return to his room.  His mother goes with him.  All the two guys find in the room is more revolutionary books.  Mother and son come into the room as the two guys just barely find a good hiding place.  Mother thinks someone has opened the suitcase.  Four Eyes checks the suitcase and says the forbidden books are still in there below the revolutionary books.  Four Eyes has to rush out to the latrine because he has a bad case of diarrhea.  Mom follows after him.  When the guys are alone they grab the suitcase and run away with it. 

The three friends look over the books.  The one that catches their eye first is the book "Cousin Bette" by the French ribald writer Balzac.  They notice other books such as "The Red and the Black" and "Crime and Punishment" by the Russian write Dostoevsky.   The pals hide the books in a place they call "The Book Grotto".  They agree to take out only one book from the suitcase at a time, so, if they are discovered, they will only lose one forbidden book at a time. 

The guys are back working in the mines.  Ma Jianling finds Luo Min crying.  He investigates and Luo Min tells him that he feels sick.  Ma Jianling thinks he may have malaria.  The chief tells the guys to push Luo Min into the water to fight the malaria.  They do so.  They then beat his back with a branch of a bush.  The men go to lunch leaving Ma Jianling and Luo Min alone.  Ma Jianling half-heartedly hits Luo Min on the back with the bush branch.  Little Seamstress comes down to investigate and takes over the hitting task from Ma Jianling.  Ma Jianling goes elsewhere.  When he looks at the couple he sees them kissing.  Ma Jianling feels a bit left out.

The guys go with Little Seamstress to see a revolutionary film.  The guys recognize the film as the one they saw before.  They say that the chief would be mad if he knew they were watching the same film again.  The villagers ask the fellows to tell them another story.  So Ma Jianling starts telling them the story he read that was written by Balzac. 

Luo Min is mad at Little Seamstress's grandfather.  He came home and yelled at Luo for reading from a forbidden book.  And, what's worse, he took the book "Old Goriot" and burned it.  Luo says: "I hate him!"

Grandfather saw something else that disturbed him.  Grandfather says that his granddaughter has changed considerably.  He overheard and saw his granddaughter showing the other young women the bra she created from the illustrations in French books.  She said that she is the first one on Phoenix Mountain to ever wear a bra.  Granddad says he was so very frightened for his granddaughter that his hands actually shook.  Grandfather asks Luo Min to stop reading her those forbidden novels. 

But soon grandfather is succumbing to temptation.  He loves adventure stories, so Ma Jianling starts telling him the story of the Count of Monte Cristo.  He becomes so enraptured about the descriptions of French, especially marine, items and styles that they creep into his clothing designs.  Soon the mountain women are wearing new styles influenced by what the tailor has learned from the forbidden French books. 

One night Ma Jianling is telling a story to grandfather when the chief shines a light on them.  He tells the two young fellows that they are to come with him to explain this at the Public Security Office.  The chief says he heard everything.  Ma told reactionary stories about nobles who live like emperors.  Luo tells the chief that Ma is not talking about a Chinese nobleman, but a foreign nobleman.  It's actually a revolutionary statement.  The chief tells Luo not to try make a fool of him.  But then the chief changes his tune.  He tells Luo if he really wants to save his buddy Ma, then Luo will have to fix the chief's bad tooth.

Grandfather runs to get Little Seamstress.  The boys need her.  Little Seamstress helps the guys fix the chief's tooth.  They set up a kind of home-made drill.  They have to tie the chief to a post to operate on him because he keeps pulling back and falling off the box seat.  With the chief tied down they finish the drilling and then fill the hole with melted tin.  The operation is a success.  This has a bad result for Luo, because the report that Luo fixed the chief's tooth brings many villagers to him so he can fix their teeth. 

Ma writes out his favorite quotes from his favorite novels on the inside of his sheepskin coat.  Luo teaches Little Seamstress to read and write.  He has her write out and say:  "I love you" and has her repeat it to him over and over. 

There was a cave-in at the mine.  The chief risked his life to save Mao's portrait.  The chief had to stay in bed for more than a month.  The guys had a few weeks of freedom and enjoyed themselves.  Music man Ma asks the miller to sing a mountain song for him.  Luo cavorts with Little Seamstress in the lake.  Luo has to tell her that the chief gave him a two months leave to see his father, who is very sick, in the hospital.  The young man entrusts Little Seamstress to Ma.  He tells him to read for her from the novels since she really loves that. 

A truck passes by and Luo jumps on the back.  Little Seamstress runs behind the truck for awhile saying goodbye to Luo.  For three weeks Ma reads from the French book "Madame Bovary".  One day Ma is confronted by four guys from the local village.  They tell Ma to leave their mountain girls alone.  A fight starts and one of the guys finds the Balzac book.  Ma is able to get up,  grab the book and run for it.  He gets hit in the ear with a stone from a sling shot as he makes his get-away. 

Little Seamstress is pregnant.  She tells Ma that if her grandfather finds out he will kill Luo.  She can't marry until she's twenty-five and she just turned eighteen.  Ma says he will take care of it for her.  He goes to the hospital and gets the gynecologist to help him.  The doctor comes out to the mountain village and in secret performs an abortion on Little Seamstress.  They almost get caught by the chief but quick thinking Ma is able to handle him. 

Ma carries Little Seamstress to town on a little chair strapped to his back.  He gives her twenty yuan to buy something nice for herself in town.  She makes him tell her where he got the money.  He finally says that he sold his violin to the doctor for twenty-five yuan.  He will use five yuan to buy a harmonica. 

Flash forward.  Ma says that of course they did not know then what would become of them.  Ma became a violinist and for fifteen years played in France.  He formed a quartet in Paris with three of his friends.  On the television he learns that the Chinese are damming  the Yangtze River and the damming will flood Phoenix Mountain and the villages there where he and his friend Luo were re-educated.  Ma decides to go back to visit Phoenix Mountain. 

Back on Phoenix Mountain he looks for Little Seamstress.  He tells people that twenty years ago he was here, in the years 1971 to 1974.  But he does not find Little Seamstress. 

Ma lands at the Shanghai airport.  There he is greeted by Luo, his wife and little son.  Now Luo is a professor with tenure of dentistry.  At Luo's home, Ma tells him that he saw the chief again.  He shows Luo the documentary film he took from the old village on Phoenix Mountain.  The old tailor died.   Luo gets to see footage of their old book grotto. 

Flashback.  The old tailor comes to the boys to say that Little Seamstress has gone to the big city.  She said she wanted to anew life.  The guys run after her.  By taking a short cut they catch up with her.  While Luo goes to speak with her, Ma waits behind.  Luo and Little Seamstress talk for awhile.  She has cut her hair short.  And Ma had gotten her the sneakers she now wears.  Luo asks who changed her?  She answers:  "Balzac." 

Little Seamstress keeps her head down so Luo tells her to look at him:  He says:  "I love you so much and you were leaving without a word to me."  She only says that in town she will be fine. 

Flash forward.  Luo tells Ma that Little Seamstress told him that the most important thing that Balzac taught her was that a woman's beauty is a priceless treasure.

Luo tells Ma that in 1982 he searched for Little Seamstress.  She eventually went to Hong Kong.   Luo tells Ma that he too was in love with Little Seamstress.  Ma says:  "Yes, maybe."  But they both loved her in their own ways. 

Water floods over Phoenix Mountain and the little cabin where Luo and Ma once lived while being "re-educated".


Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.


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