To the question of ”How’re ya gonna keep her down on the farm after she’s read Cousin Bette?” the answer in Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress is, ya can’t. Adapting his own nostalgic semiautobiographical novel about reeducation during the Chinese Cultural Revolution, filmmaker Dai Sijie has created a dreamy memory of hardship — part familiar Chinese parable, part familiar French romance — in which love of the radiantly beautiful, remote Chinese landscape outlasts bitterness at the Mao era’s blinkered commitment to intellectual ignorance.
The three principals in the film (made in 2002 and banned in China) are radiantly beautiful too, which doesn’t hurt. Sent for ”rehabilitation” to a remote mining village in 1971, as penance for their educated upbringing, Luo (Chen Kun) and Ma (Liu Ye) court the tailor’s granddaughter of the title (Zhou Xun) by reading to her from a stolen cache of forbidden classic literature. Enlightenment is good, Dai acknowledges. But the movie’s more provocative assertion is the notion that ignorance was also a kind of bliss.