gets a new look !
At the beginning of the 70s, China is still under the yoke of the Cultural Revolution. One of Mao’s policies is the re-education of “intellectuals”. They are sent out to work alongside farmers so as to experience the hard reality of life. Luo and Ma are the sons of intellectuals belonging to the medical and scientific professions. They are therefore considered “enemies of the people” by the Communist party and are sent to an isolated region in the Middle Empire. On the borders of Tibet, the Mountain of the Phoenix of Heaven is justly named. Its stone staircases climb through wild scenery to scale heights that disappear into the clouds. It is here, in a village beside a lake in a distant valley that they two young men find themselves surrounded by rustic, uncultivated and illiterate villagers.
As soon as they arrive, Luo and Ma are initiated into the arts of resourcefulness and revolt. Luo doesn’t hesitate to rename a banned sonata by the “decadent” European composer Mozart as “Mozart Thinks of President Mao” with the sole aim of saving his friend’s violin from going up in smoke. Caught in the spell of the revolutionary sonata, the village chief removes the sanction imposed upon the subversive object and the violin is saved. The two men settle into their new lives. They slave away at degrading tasks, in the rice paddies, scraping out minerals from a malaria-infested mine with their bare hands. Given their background, Ma and his friend have little chance of ever returning to normal life. “Three out of a thousand” according to the statistics: they’re condemned to a lifelong “re-education”.
One day Luo and Ma meet an old tailor and his gorgeous granddaughter. The elderly man owns a priceless sewing machine. Although it may be from a past age, it is nevertheless a symbol of modernity. With it he creates fashions in this lost corner of the world.
Luo falls madly in love with the Little Seamstress and decides to educate her by telling her tales based on the Chinese melodramas and North Korean films that the village chief sends he and Ma to see in a neighboring village. It takes two days by foot to get there. When they return from their outings, they act out the films they’ve seen much to the villagers’ enjoyment.
Lou and Ma quickly make a name for themselves as storytellers and the blandness of their raw material rapidly proves wanting. The Little Seamstress tells them about how Four Eyes, the son of a well-known writer and poetess also undergoing re-education, hides a suitcase full of foreign novels under his bed.
The Little Seamstress, Luo and Ma steal the suitcase and find a marvelous treasure inside. Flaubert, Hugo, Tolstoy, Dickens, Rolland, Dumas, Rousseau and, of course, Balzac. In short, a collection of subversive literature that is absolutely forbidden. It must remain their secret. Luo and Ma work by day and read by night. Complicity, both of love and friendship, unites the trio.
Night after night, Luo and Ma tell the villagers of the adventures of Ursule Mirouët, or of the Count of Monte Christo, generously seasoning these tales with revolutionary zest. The village chief allows the stories just so long as they are dedicated to the Great Leader. The Old Tailor, spellbound by the elegant dress described by Alexander Dumas, churns out a new clothing line that has the villagers dressed in sailor outfits of the Royalist brigades.
Luo and Ma draw their intellectual nourishment from these books and learn about the art of seduction. As for the Little Seamstress, her sentimental education is formed by Balzac’s works. He’s her preferred author because “he talks about women’s beauty with such skill.” Little by little, she is awakened to a sense of freedom. Freedom to live – she chooses a happy-go-lucky attitude and acts in collusion with Luo and Ma. Freedom to think – she learns to read and write. Freedom to dream… beyond the limits imposed by Mao’s Little Red Book. Beyond even the limits imagined by Luo and Ma. Freedom to love – she becomes Luo’s lover.
But it’s a dangerous situation. One night, the village chief catches them telling the old tailor a story that he judges truly reactionary. In exchange for his silence, Luo – son of a great dentist who cared for Chang Kai-Chek’s teeth – must heal a hole in the chief’s tooth that is causing him a great deal of pain.
Benefiting from a special authorization, Luo leaves the village for two months, unaware that the Little Seamstress is pregnant. Ma, who is secretly in love with her but keeps it hidden out of loyalty to his friend, accompanies her to the hospital and convinces a doctor to abort the child in exchange for a book by Romain Rolland. When Luo returns to the village, the Little Seamstress has already decided to leave – alone. Balzac has opened up other horizons for her and has made her think that perhaps the grass is less red on the other side of the Sichuan mountains. She slips away discreetly, but definitively. Luo and Ma leave the village a short time later. The Cultural Revolution is over. Twenty years later… Ma, who now lives in Paris where he is a well-known violinist, learns that the village is going to be eradicated by the waters pouring from the Three Gorge Dam. He returns to China to the place of his re-education and finds the main people who played a part in his youth. He sees Luo, who has become a renowned doctor, in Shanghai. Together they recall this period in their youth. Memories and shadows hover. The Old Tailor has died. The village disappears beneath the waters. Neither Luo nor Ma have seen the Little Seamstress again and don’t know what’s become of her. And as for her, will she ever know her story is behind an international bestseller and a film which, while being a superb story of love and friendship, is also a formidable homage to literature?
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