Born in China but a French resident for over 15 years, Dai Sijie ("China My Sorrow") grew up during Mao's Cultural Revolution in the 1970s and was sent to a re-education camp in Sichuan. The four years he spent their inspired his novel, which was part-autobiography, part-fiction. His film is for the most part faithful to its source material, yet a new, ill-judged temporal shift in the final act proves disruptive. Beautifully shot, delicately scored and powered by a set of heartfelt performances, it's a lyrical endeavour.
The film follows two friends undergoing re-education, Luo (Chen Kun) and Ma (Liu Ye). Their days consist of manual work among the mountains, while their nights are devoted to a clandestine appreciation of the arts, as they play music and pore over the forbidden novels of a number of French authors. Balzac is their favourite. They share their literary passions with a tailor's daughter ("Beijing Bicycle's" winsome Zhou Xun) and the spirit of the words stirs her ambitions to escape her surroundings.
With a plot based around rebelling against conventions and staying true to your dreams, this is an impossibly romantic picture and a love letter to escapism through the arts. "Sometimes a book can affect your whole life," an elderly gentleman observes. Dai Sijie's ruminative picture has more than the potential to trigger a similar response. Starring Zhou Xun, Chen Kun, Liu Ye and Wang Suang Bao. Directed by Dai Sijie. Written by Dai Sijie and Nadine Perront. Produced by Lise Fayolle. An Empire release. Drama. Mandarin-dialogue; subtitled. Unrated. Running time: 110 min