Audiences partial to foreign-language films may embrace Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress in much the same way they did Etre et Avoir from France, Il Postino from Italy or Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown from Spain. Subtitled stories are often more captivating than the homegrown variety. Maybe it's the lure of the exotic.
Balzac, which closed the recent Vermont International Film Festival and opens November 4 at Burlington's Roxy, travels back to the Cultural Revolution in the company of two teenage boys. Luo (Kun Chen), a dentist's son, and Ma (Ye Liu), a budding classical musician, trek to a mining community in Sichuan Province for the "re-education" then required of anyone considered a "bourgeois reactionary." Cinematographer Jean Marie Dreujou conveys the mountainous region's inspirational beauty, which is the sole redeeming feature of this otherwise hardscrabble town. Until these newcomers arrive, the place could just as easily be locked in the Middle Ages.
Head Communist honcho Chief (Shuangbao Wang) scolds the kids for their privileged backgrounds, even destroying the cookbook Luo has brought along. But Ma's violin is spared when he plays Mozart and explains that the sonata is a paean to Chairman Mao.
Despite backbreaking work in the mine and hauling barrels of human waste, Luo and Ma find clever ways to thrive. When they meet the radiant Little Seamstress (Xun Zhou), the granddaughter of a wizened tailor, their desire to enlighten the peasantry is realized. Thanks to a secret cache of banned books left behind by a fellow detainee, the three adolescents begin tasting the forbidden fruit of novels by Dumas, Flaubert, Gogol and Balzac. For the Little Seamstress, learning to read is particularly life-changing. As in Jules and Jim, a romantic triangle also ensues.
Co-writer and director Dai Sijie, now a resident of France, adapted the film from his semi-autobiographical bestseller. Although these recollections apparently soften an experience that must have been fairly harrowing, Balzac's lyrical charm transcends the improbably feel-good tale.
In 3 Needles, a trio of stories
about the AIDS crisis, Canadian writer-director Thom Fitzgerald traverses the world and finds plenty of trouble. The film, blessed with Thomas M. Harting's breathtaking cinematography, unspools this weekend at the 34th Montreal Festival du Nouveau Cinema.
With an expedition of missionary nuns (including Olympia Dukakis and Sandra Oh), Chloe Sevigny convincingly portrays a novice who must use unorthodox, perhaps even sinful, methods to help South Africans at a remote outpost. The disease stalks the impoverished local population with inevitable success.
Also gripping, Lucy Liu appears as a pregnant woman buying blood on the cheap from naïve villagers in the forlorn reaches of rural China. When the get-rich scheme backfires, a man whose tiny daughter has been infected seeks justice from an uncaring government bureaucracy.
The weakest segment, which unfolds in Montreal, centers on a mother (Stockard Channing, with a questionable Quebeçois accent) who'll do anything to save her porn-star son (Shawn Ashmore) from himself. To pass the HIV test required for such work, he regularly substitutes healthy blood for his own, putting his skin-flick colleagues at risk.
Fitzgerald's overarching message does not instill much hope: The virus knows no boundaries and, when tragedy strikes, chaos can easily overcome social order.
The fest, which began on October 13 and continues through Sunday the 23rd, offers 197 films from 38 countries. Visit http://www.nouveaucinema.ca for details. 3 Needles screens at 5:15 p.m. Thursday. Some of the other intriguing selections:
Breakfast on Pluto -- Director Neil Jordan revisits the transvestite-meets-the IRA theme that worked so well for him in 1992's The Crying Game. In this case, a well-dressed Irish lad (Cillian Murphy of Red Eye) runs into political intrigue while searching for his birth mother in London.
Commune -- The documentary chronicles decades of change at a Northern California gathering place for 1960s hippies, who lived by the credo "free land for free people."
Gilaneh -- In this drama, an Iranian family devastated by the 1980s war with Iraq copes with that legacy during the 2003 overthrow of Saddam Hussein.
Highway to the Grave -- Nigeria is the setting for a movie production notes describe as "a morality tale about philandering men seduced by a coven of mermaids." Sounds interesting, eh?