Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress is not about an unknown scandalous chapter in the life of French novelist Honoré de Balzac; rather, the new film is merely a coming-of-age story of two Chinese boys who discover the glories of both sex and Western literature, although not necessarily in that order.

Dai Sijie based his story on his own surprise best-seller of the same name and the director and co-screenwriter does a competent job with a lavish production, but anyone expecting something either insightful or unusual will be disappointed.

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress is set in China in the early 1970s, as the Maoist "Cultural Revolution" is taking hold of the land. Two city youths, Luo (Chen Kun) and Ma (Liu Ye), are sent to the country when it is discovered they are gaining too much of a Western education. In addition to hard labor in the mountain region, the boys are required to learn more about Maoist and communist ideology.

During an extended trip to a larger town, both boys fall for the daughter (Zhou Xun) of the local tailor. Never knowing her name, they call her simply "the Little Seamstress." At the same time, the boys discover a suitcase containing banned books by Western writers, including Flaubert and Balzac, and they spend hours reading to the Little Seamstress in a hideaway meeting place.
Eventually, Luo and the seamstress become serious lovers, but they must separate when Luo and Ma are called back to the mountain village. The Little Seamstress soon discovers she is pregnant and makes an important decision about her future. Meanwhile, the boys remember their trip and the young woman they met with fondness.

Though Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress is directed by someone born in the Chinese province of Fujian, populated by Chinese actors, and subtitled in English but thoroughly Mandarin, the film really owes itself much more to Western popular culture. Like most coming-of-age stories from the West (and in homage to Balzac and possibly Truffaut's 400 Blows), the story is told in basic linear fashion. As a film, the scenes are shot in traditional Hollywood style (e.g., the "breaking down" of scenes which culminate in close-ups). In terms of any message, Balzac makes the straightforward case that Western culture is superior to Eastern culture. The film even suggests there is (or was) little Eastern or Chinese culture apart from the dreary propagandistic books and films of the communists.

By contrast, Jia Zhangke's Platform, which spanned the 1970s and 1980s, offers a much more complex view of the same period by showing both mass and individual responses to the cultural changes during and after "the Cultural Revolution." (Incidentally, Platform was completed in 2000 while Balzac was finished in 2001, and both productions had French financing.) Unlike another 2001 film, Alfonso Cuarón's Y Tu Mamá También, Balzac presents a much simpler view of sexuality, despite the essentially similar "coming-of-age" and "triangle" love plot. Feminists will probably not appreciate the fact that the boys never even bother to know the name of the Little Seamstress-and the viewer doesn't get to either. In that context, the title of the film (and Dai's book) is downright insulting, let alone pro-Western.

The lush settings and pretty widescreen photography make Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress pleasurable to watch, but discerning viewers may want to look elsewhere for something other than a nice, familiar bourgeois narrative.
-Eric Monder