Dir: Dai Sijie. France. 2002. 116 mins.

Un Certain Regard (Opening Film)

The French connection makes Balzac And The Little Chinese Seamstress, a gentle, partly autobiographical coming-of-age tale from the Paris-based Chinese director Dai Sijie, a natural choice to open Un Certain Regard although, in the event, it emerges as on the skimpy side to be the flagship film of a major festival section. Still, the exotic setting, appealing characters, poignant humour and spectacular landscapes add up to a very attractive package for middlebrow arthouse audiences, especially in territories such as France where the source novel, also by Dai, has been a best-seller. Cuts to streamline the sluggish pace in latter stretches would further improve its commercial prospects.

Mu and Lao are two young men from middle-class families who, like thousands of others from their generation, have been sent for "re-education" in the country during the Cultural Revolution. Pragmatic Lao is a dentist's son, who will later follow his father into the profession, while the dreamy Mu is a musician who narrowly manages to save his violin from the bonfire by claiming to village elders that the sonatas he plays on it are patriotic songs by that revolutionary peasant, Mozart, in praise of Mao.

Sent to a remote mountain village in Sichuan, Southern China, they're assigned to transporting tubs of excrement to fertilise the fields. But their spirits are lifted when they discover the local belles and the watering hole where they gather for near-nude bathing parties, the main focus of their desires being the tailor's grand-daughter, known only as "the little seamstress."

The girl is lovely but illiterate, indeed almost child-like; she dismantles their alarm clock after they tease her that there's a real rooster inside. Both men fall instantly under her spell, and decide to give her a sentimental education by reading her extracts from their secret cache of Balzac, Stendhal, Flaubert, Dumas and other banned French books.

Their first love ends in bittersweet fashion, after the seamstress decides to leave her village and discover the wider world. The ending alludes to a favourite theme of French 19th century literature: the youngster from the provinces off to make a fortune in the big city. It's a bit of a disappointment, though, that the main insight she seems to have gleaned from the literary classics is that "a woman's beauty is a priceless treasure." One also wonders whether Asian audiences will appreciate the underlying message that it takes Western art to civilise these uncouth peasants (the film has not yet been approved for release in China).

These weaknesses are partly offset by Dai's confident command of the story's shifting mix of comedy and melancholy, as well as the gorgeous photography of the stunning locations and some good, fluid use of hand-held camera. As the seamstress, Xun Zhou radiates a doll-like beauty, but can't do much with a threadbare character. The best performance comes from Liu Ye, who brings a brooding, fiercely interior quality to the secretive Mu, while Chung Zhijun as the ancient grandfather has a wonderfully photogenic face.

Prod co: TF1
Int'l Sales: TF1
Prod: Lise Fayolle.
Exec Prods: Bernard Lorain, Wang Zhebin.
Scr: Nadine Perront and Dai Sijie, based on his own novel.
Dop: Jean Marie Dreujou.
Prod des: Cao Jumping.
Eds: Julia Gregory, Luc Barnier.
Music: Wang Pujian.
Main cast: Chen Kun, Liu Ye, Xun Zhou, Wang Suangbao, Chung Zhijun.