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Film review: 'Balzac' kept afloat by scenery and cast

Published: Friday, Oct. 14 2005 12:00 a.m. MDT

BALZAC AND THE LITTLE CHINESE SEAMSTRESS — ** 1/2 — Chen Kun, Liu Ye, Zhou Xun; in Mandarin, with English subtitles; not rated, probable PG-13 (profanity, sex, vulgarity, violence, brief drugs).

"Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress" loses something in the translation from the printed page to the big screen. What makes that ironic is that the filmmaker is Dai Sijie, who also wrote the novel from which this period Chinese drama is derived.

However, in adapting his semi-autobiographical work, Dai has had to sacrifice some of the better elements — the literate tone, for one thing — which causes the basic story to seem ordinary and overly familiar (reminiscent of such better Asian films as "Postmen in the Mountains" and "The Road Home").

Still, the film does feature some handsome scenery and a good cast. Zhou Xun, from "Beijing Bicycle," stars as the unnamed seamstress in the title. She's the granddaughter of a tailor (Zhijun Chung) who is revered in his remote mountain village.

Luo (Chen Kun) and Ma (Liu Ye) are there to work as part of a supposed "re-education" program for the sons and daughters of those who are deemed by the Red Communist government as counter-revolutionaries. And the spoiled duo isn't too thrilled about performing sometimes back-breaking tasks, and they take every opportunity to sneak out and gaze on the village's bathing beauties.

Both are instantly smitten with the young seamstress. And once they discover that she can't write, they vow to educate her, using forbidden books swiped from one of their fellow workers (which is where the Honore de Balzac reference in the title comes from; as it turns out, she's entranced by the 19th-century French author's novel "Cousin Bette").

Curiously, the film never really bothers to give the seamstress character a name, which makes her seem more like a cipher than a genuine object of affection for the two main characters. But, thankfully, Zhou's bewitching performance does give her a little more dimension (it is easy to see why Luo and Ma would be drawn to her).

But the real star here is the Chinese landscape, which is lush and inviting. Cinematographer Jean-Marie Dreujou and his crews have done a good job of capturing its beauty.

"Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress" is not rated but would probably receive a PG-13 for scattered use of strong profanity, a sex scene, some crude references and humor, some violence (including a whipping), brief drug content (herbal medicines and references) and some adult themes. Running time: 110 minutes.


E-mail: jeff@desnews.com

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