Back to the Chinese Seamstress

I’d written earlier of how enchanted I was with Dai Sijie’s book, Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress.

I just watched the movie and have to admit I was disappointed. It was fairly faithful to the book, but it lacked gravitas and pathos. There was a poignancy to the book that stayed with me for many days (and does so even now); the movie, despite several memorable scenes and a fine start, just didn’t cut it.

It begins with a spectacularly beautiful shot of the young heroes climbing up a seemingly endless stone stairway leading up a steep hill surrounded by lush green vegetation that clings to limetone mountains that rise sheer up from the ground. They are going to their re-education camp. After a few seconds, we hear in the background children’s voices chanting an old Cultural Revolution song:

We are the Red Guard of Chairman Mao
Who march from the steppes to Tiananmen

Toward the end of my stay in Beijing, I bought the DVD for 8 yuan (about a dollar) and started to watch it with my friend Ben. (After about 20 minutes, the DVD stopped playing, an all too commonplace occurrence with fakes.) As soon as the singing started, Ben got quite excited and began to sing along. He said all the children in his school had memorized this song. Ben was born nearly five years after Deng ended the Cultural Revolution, so I was surprised he was taught songs glorifying the Red Guard.

(If you aren’t familiar with the details of the Red Guard, please buy the book Wild Swans, which manages to bring this phenomenon vividly to life, in all of its ugliness and irrationality.)

So I just watched the full movie, and as the childrens’ voices began their chant, I felt another of those wistful, all-consuming waves of — of what? It’s not easy to describe. The feeling goes beyond nostalgia and is right out of a Thomas Wolfe novel, that longing to recapture a moment that was magical but can never be experienced again. In other words, the movie gave me a flood of memories about China.

The sentimentality meter just shot up into the stratosphere, signalling that I should quit here and go to sleep. I had an unusually long and hard day today, but also a very intersting one that I hope to write more about soon.

The Discussion: One Comment

Richard, just finished that book and was wondering about the film. I haven’t seen it available locally, but haven’t looked too hard. I know exactly what wave you’re describing. Now back in the States, I often get one that includes some sense of dispair at the condition of life in China while intermixed with the significance of being present in such a transitional period of “China’s” history, not to mention the personal nostalgia of friends and now familiar places so far away as if it was my own movie.

September 8, 2003 @ 10:38 pm | Comment

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