p_ (2002)
The Little Chinese Seamstress


Reviewed by: ewaffle
Date: 07/25/2010

"The Little Chinese Seamstress" is a coming of age story that takes place during the re-education of two bourgeois youths, Ma and Luo in a tiny village perched on the side of a mountain where the only way in or out is by walking. The setting is the epitome of Marx's "rural idiocy" made real, with suspicious, fearful peasants who are not only unaware of how life is lived beyond their limited horizon but aren't really sure it exists, with a wonderfully photographed wild backdrop of mountains, bottomless ravines, waterfalls and caves. However the rustic villagers and the two exiles are depicted as equal with much to learn and to teach on either side. Some things clearly won't work, such as the local treatment for malaria which involves dunking the patient into ice water and beating him with a stick for hours, until the beaters get tired or lose interest.

After the extreme unpleasantness of learning to carry heavy buckets of liquid manure on their back--learning the hard way by making mistakes and having it slop over them--and working while bent double in a narrow mine shaft, nothing much happens to the exiles from the city. The village chief who could have made their lives miserable is won over when he discovers an alarm clock in their baggage and becomes entranced with the measurement of time.

The seamstress has a much larger role in the movie than she did in the book upon which it was based. Since she is played by the staggeringly beautiful Zhou Xun that is a change that one can live with. Chen Kun really shines as ebullient and outgoing Luo who is given the task of going to the next village and watching the latest movie from Albania or North Korea. Accompanied by Ma, he returns and narrates the entire movie to the assembled villagers. His story telling is limited only by one stricture from the mayor--it must be exactly as long as the film itself so a two hour movie must be told in exactly 120 minutes, apparently another instance of the chief learning about time and how it can be used to control others.

The theme of the book upon which "The Little Chinese Seamstress" is based is the liberating power of literature--or at least of 19th century French novels--on anyone who opens up to it even those who might have a hard time imaging the (for them) ultra-exotic settings of the books. I mention both the movie and the book since Dai Si-Jie did the adaption of his own novel and directed it and the theme was so much better served in the novel--a book about how books can change one's life is a more appropriate venue than a movie.

Dai Si-Jie's movie is an easy one to like--it looks gorgeous, has no real villains, has three very attractive and talented young performers in starring roles doesn't challenge what anyone might think. Just getting it made was quite an accomplishment and one can only guess at the compromises necessary to be allowed to make it in the PRC.

Reviewer Score: 5