Director: Sijie Dai
Based on the critically acclaimed autobiography of a youth spent in a Maoist Communist reeducation village in the 1970’s, director Sijie Dai crafts a lovely film about the power of literacy in transforming the lives of those who take the time to discover the meaning behind the text. Two older teenagers, Luo and Ma both find themselves enchanted by a local young seamstress and the secret hidden “book grotto” they find containing banned masterpieces, including the works of Balzac. Hoping to educate and charm the young beauty, the boys take to reading her the books only to realize soon enough that the words are affecting them tremendously—while it frees them emotionally and intellectually, the knowledge of a world outside of their immediate village also reminds them of their limitations. There’s a question of ethics concerning their “education” of the Chinese seamstress (played by Xun Zhou in a wonderfully charismatic role)—for it is the girl who undergoes the cruelest twist of fate and at the end, disappears from her village seeking a better life, never to be heard from again. The melancholy disappearance of the seamstress takes our hearts out of the picture in an overly long conclusion about the present day lives of the two boys, which reminded me of the unnecessary director’s cut version of Cinema Paradiso that signified the lesson that in cinema, sometimes less is indeed more. Still, the film is bewitching and will definitely make you want to dust off your old bookshelves in search of the classics. An overwhelming audience favorite at the Scottsdale International Film Festival (SIFF), Balzac was also nominated for a Golden Globe as the Best Foreign Language Film in the year of its release.