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Are movies inherently wimpier than books? The latest argument in favor of that proposition is Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, a rare example of a film adapted from its director’s own novel. Chinese expatriate Dai Sijie’s semiautobiographical movie is a winsome exercise in local color, trading in such commonplace ethnofable ingredients as striking scenery, earthy paupers, and young love. It’s quite pleasant, but Dai’s book is considerably tougher. Both are set during the Cultural Revolution, when urbanites were sent to the hinterlands to be “re-educated” by the peasants. Only the novel, however, makes it clear throughout that this was a time of hardship.
As a filmmaker, Dai is far from reverent of his source material. Perhaps recasting incidents he couldn’t get to work in the book, he and co-scripter Nadine Perront add and subtract from the published version of the events, most notably appending a nostalgic epilogue that doesn’t exist in the novel. What has changed most of all, however, is the tone. On the page, the tale is teeming with lice, sodden with rain, choking on coal dust, and streaked with shit from the overflowing buckets of fertilizer that teenage exiles Luo (Chen Kun) and Ma (Liu Ye) must haul up mountain paths. Dai’s cinematic retelling, however, could prompt viewers to sigh with regret that they missed the delights of a Maoist re-education in the sunny peaks of central China.
The story begins in 1971, when Luo and Ma arrive in the remote Phoenix Mountain region, where cinematographer Jean-Marie Dreujou’s tight closeups and low-angle shots convey the newcomers’ unease. The protagonists are the children of suspect professionals—doctors and dentists—and are deemed “intellectuals” for having finished middle school. By local standards, they are indeed scholars; both can read, and Ma plays the violin, a skill that draws suspicion until Luo persuades the village headman that his friend is performing a ditty titled “Mozart Is Thinking of Chairman Mao.”
Work is hard for the city kids—including hapless Four Eyes (Hong Wei Wang), another exiled youth assigned to a nearby village—but the movie soon forgets about it. Luo proves his skill as a storyteller, so he and Ma are dispatched regularly to a nearby town to watch examples of international socialist cinema and then recount every detail to assemblies of enraptured peasants. Something else is even more disruptive to their re-education: the presence of the “little Chinese seamstress,” an adolescent beauty whose grandfather travels frequently. Luo takes advantage of these absences to woo the never-named seamstress (Zhou Xun) and is apparently successful. Yet sex ultimately proves less stirring than literature. The bond among the three teens becomes more passionate after they discover—and heist—Four Eyes’ suitcase full of forbidden books. Nearly all books are taboo in early-’70s China, but this collection is particularly incendiary: novels by Balzac, Flaubert, and other bourgeois-reactionary authors.
Despite their relative sophistication, Luo and Ma have little advantage over the seamstress; they’ve never read a Western novel before, either. All three are reading about desires and freedoms they’ve never experienced, and they find that these stories have widespread appeal in rural China—especially if advertised as, say, the plot of an Albanian film. The three readers’ dedication to keeping books alive in the desert of the Cultural Revolution gives the filmed Balzac a hint of Fahrenheit 451– style worthiness. But the movie homogenizes its central characters. Principal players Chen, Liu, and Zhou are fresh-faced and bland, while—in the tradition of affectionate cinematic glances at backwaters from around the globe—the supporting cast boasts a wealth of distinguishing eccentricities.
Ma is Dai’s alter ego, and he serves as narrator of both film and book. Yet the director barely uses voice-over to knit together his story, preferring to present it as a series of loosely linked vignettes. The continuity is intentionally choppy, as if Dai is presenting snapshots from his hazy past, a time and place that’s about to be inundated by the controversial Three Gorges Dam. Like his creator, the movie’s Ma eventually finds himself in Paris—Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress was first published in French—contemplating lost youth, lost innocence, and lost love as if he hadn’t been lucky simply to get out of the Cultural Revolution alive. Dai’s film is sweet and picturesque, but his novel provides a more pungent sense of what was at stake.
Anyone who’s heard that 9 Songs is hot will be surprised that this sex-drugs-and-modern-rock anecdote opens in Antarctica. But that’s an apt place for British glaciologist Matt (Kieran O’Brien) to contemplate his recently ended affair with Lisa (Margo Stilley), one in a long cinematic tradition of American gamines abroad. Rendered with harsh digital-video imagery in a style that seems distant even when the camera is jostling the actors’ genitals, 9 Songs drains the zest not only from sex but also from the music of Super Furry Animals, Primal Scream, the Dandy Warhols, and several other bands. For those who don’t crave heat, however, the movie has its appeal.
Michael Winterbottom’s newish provocation, which has been knocking around Europe since last year, is part of a recent boom in sexually candid art films that includes Catherine Breillat’s The Anatomy of Hell and Tsai Ming-Liang’s The Wayward Cloud; all three depict such XXX events as penetration and ejaculation, but without much titillation. Winterbottom has dabbled in many genres and periods on numerous continents—Antarctica down, three to go—so his motivation may simply be to once again do something he’s never done before. This movie is that in numerous ways—some of them not so good.
The 69-minute film’s framework—song, then sex, then song, and so on—suggests a work of extreme formalism, but 9 Songs isn’t as, uh, rigid as all that. The elements sometimes mingle or overlap, as during sequences that are neither musical nor erotic, or when tunes infiltrate Lisa and Matt’s private realm. In one scene, she dances briefly to a Salif Keita number, and music from one of the song sequences—solo piano from Michael Nyman’s 60th-birthday show—can be heard during some quiet moments. When shooting in contemporary London, Winterbottom can never entirely resist parading cool-Britannia attractions, so he occasionally breaks the mood by yanking the lovers out of the concert hall or the bedroom, notably for trips to a strip club and the London Eye, the city’s mammoth Ferris wheel.
There are hints at narrative, offered in part by Matt’s voice-over but also in disconnected glimmers of tension, such as when Lisa inexplicably weeps, Matt complains that she takes too many drugs, or she uses a vibrator while he’s in the kitchen. This is perhaps a love story, given that Matt plunges into the cold British ocean to prove his devotion, and that the ninth song is Black Rebel Motorcycle Club’s “Love Burns,” which laments, “Now she’s gone, love burns inside me.” Yet Matt’s opening narration also suggests that the romance was purely sensory: “I think about her smell, her taste…” That remark is more in keeping with the film’s look and feel, which emphasize surface qualities over psychological depth.
Full-on, unsimulated sex is still a rarity outside pure porn, so that element of the film naturally attracts attention. But in terms of Winterbottom’s career, the most radical thing about 9 Songs is that it’s the first time he’s worked without a screenwriter. The director takes the writing credit, even if what he contributed is more a schema than a script. Though the dialogue might not be as improvised as it sounds, this movie is more in the tradition of Winterbottom’s In This World, a road movie created on the fly, than Last Tango in Paris. 9 Songs isn’t about sex or love, but about texture, structure, and timing—and as such, it’s impassively impressive. The key text for this quick-cut meditation comes not from BRMC but from SFA: “Rocks are slow life,” sings Gruff Rhys, a line that resonates somewhere between Brixton and Antarctica.CP