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Byline: Bob Strauss Film Critic

HERE'S SOMETHING you don't see every day: a film directed by the author of its best-selling source novel.

Dai Sijie's ``Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress'' is not only that, but a surprisingly lyrical remembrance of life in a re-education zone during China's Cultural Revolution.

Dai has denied that his book is strictly autobiographical, but he also acknowledges that many of its details are based on things he saw or experienced when he was sent from a bourgeois home (his parents were doctors, and so by Maoist reckoning, counter-revolutionary) to a remote mountain village for four hard years.

Yet while not denying the harshness of the time - re-education candidates are shown doing back-breaking mine labor and hauling foul buckets of raw sewage up steep hillside paths - Dai also manages to locate the nostalgic pleasures of youth as only someone who found them in the least opportune of conditions could.

There are actually two city boys in ``Balzac'': Luo (Kun Chen) and Ma (Ye Liu). They bring unheard-of talents ranging from violin playing to literacy to the uncanny ability to read a clock to a remote lakeside hamlet in the higher elevations of Sichuan.

Though a staunch Communist, their village headman realizes that the new guys are good for reciting the plots of North Korean movies to his rapt villagers (after returning from the nearest city where they watch the turgid, doctrinaire films, Luo and Ma make up most of their theatrical re-creations). They might even know a thing or two about the forbidden art of dentistry (when he gets a toothache).

For their part, the sophisticated young men just want to find some way to have fun. This manifests in two forms: the pretty, unnamed title girl (Xun Zhou), daughter of the area's only tailor, and a secret stash of forbidden Western books, which they take turns reading to the uneducated but eager-to-learn seamstress. Needless to say, both men fall in love with her, and that leads to trouble.

As far as a novelist helming his own movie goes, the last time I recall something like this happening was when Norman Mailer directed an adaptation of his goofy noir novel ``Tough Guys Don't Dance'' in 1987. ``Balzac'' is by far a richer, more atmospheric and altogether sweeter effort, if somewhat more predictable whether you're familiar with the book or not.

Dai is good with actors and can't go wrong visually in such a natural, beautiful setting (the film's camera and editing teams were French). I'm not sure whether he has a brighter future as a filmmaker or as a novelist. But Dai sure has a knack for putting affection for humanity, and for literature, up on the screen. These days, that's a rare talent indeed.

Bob Strauss, (818) 713-3670



(Not rated: language, sex, mild violence)

Starring: Xun Zhou, Kun Chen, Ye Liu.

Director: Dai Sijie.

Running time: 1 hr. 51 min.

Playing: Laemmle Town Center 5, Encino; Laemmle Playhouse 7, Pasadena; Laemmle Music Hall, Beverly Hills; Laemmle Monica, Santa Monica; Edwards University Town Center 6, Irvine.

In a nutshell: Sweet, melancholy tale of two young city men who fall in love with the same country girl during China's Cultural Revolution. In Mandarin and French with English subtitles.
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Aug 26, 2005

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