Lowdown: Nothing can suppress the human spirit. Other than communism and capitalism.
I have a problem with Balzac. I really hate him: back in high-school we were forced to read his book Pere Goriot; I started reading it, but just found it way too boring to actually consume. It was so boring I didn't even read the short summaries of it, and as a result I had to spend a good few months of school under the terror of potentially being tested on it.
Fast forward 20 years into the future, and now Balzac comes back, sort of, in this Chinese speaking film. The film, set in the early seventies, follows a couple of young Chinese guys from the city who are sent for "communist re-education" in some remote mountain village because the father of one of them - a dentist - did some work on Chiang Kai-Shek's mouth.
In that village they are required to give up on their spirit: their books are burnt, their hi-tech possessions (an alarm clock) are confiscated, and their violin is very close to being burnt until they play a Mozart tune they claim to be called "Mozart thinks of Mao". And then their intellectual skills are thrown out of the window when all they are required to do is hard labor - a lot of it.
Quickly enough they find a secret hideout where the villagers' women go for a bath. They get close to one of them, a young seamstress. She is illiterate, and their mission becomes opening her eyes to what this world has to offer through books. They steal a bunch of books from another re-educated guy who claims to have become a true hard laboring communist but who is actually just bluffing in order to get back to the city and his rich family. They read the books to all the villagers, but most importantly to the seamstress - who just happens to love Balzac the most (weird girl). Most importantly, through the books they manage to stir some spirit back into their existence as well as the villagers'. As optimistic as that may seem, though, [spoiler warning!] all is not that well that ends well; eventually, capitalism and the quest for more will replace communism as the abductor of the human spirit.
There is no doubt about the merit of the film's idea, and a lot of it is good: it exposes Western viewers to a world they probably weren't exposed to before, it offers some nice sceneries, and overall the concept is an interesting one. However, it is also lacking in many respects, which can be summed up in a single word: boredom. The film is simply too slow for comfort, and even though it is the type of film on which you may say "oh, that's a nice film" and on which you tend to think afterwards, it just doesn't cut the mustard.
Best scenes: The first is the scene where the two heroes' items are scrutinized in order to find anti-communist material. The second is when three peasants discover one of the forbidden books the heroes are hiding, and have an argument on whether the author's photo (a French author) on the book's cover is Marx, Lenin or Stalin; the scene goes a long way in showing what the limiting of the scope of people's thoughts can do to us, and it made me think of the many other artificial thought limitations we tend to burden ourselves with.
Overall: The boredom eclipses the positive. 2 stars.