A sweetly pungent memory tale evoking the power of books and of governments to change lives for the better or worse, ''Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress" has a lot on its plate: class divisions, China's Cultural Revolution, ''The Count of Monte Cristo," the physical majesty of the Three Gorges region, love and sex in the western provinces. That it balances them all so gracefully testifies to the wisdom of letting novelists direct their own film adaptations.
Author-filmmaker Sijie Dai based his 2001 bestseller on his youth, when he was forcibly relocated by Mao's Red Guards from Beijing to a high mountain village for ''re-education" in the early 1970s. The aim was to turn young urban intellectuals into docile peasants, but ''Balzac" shows how easily it could go the other way.
Luo (Kun Chen) and Ma (Ye Liu) are two smart, spoiled city boys appalled that they have to work in copper mines and carry baskets of human fertilizer to the fields (they're not very good at it, either). While the two earn the contempt of the village men and the local party chief (Shuangbao Wang), they still thumb their noses in discreet ways: Ma gets away with playing a sonata on his violin by telling the party chief that Mozart wrote it for Mao, while he and Luo dazzle the villagers by retelling the plots of potboiler movies as campfire oral histories. The bottom line in ''Balzac" is that listening to stories -- the human urge to find out what happens next -- cuts across age, class, and political beliefs.
Then Luo and Ma come across a trunk full of banned novels, most of them 19th-century French classics in Chinese translation. This sudden stockpile of narrative makes them local stars to the village women, especially to the Little Seamstress (Xun Zhou), who is 18, quick-witted, and unexpectedly caught up in Balzac's ''Cousin Bette," even though she has never heard of either Paris or France. Ma feels that way, too. ''I feel the world has changed; even the smell of pigs," he says after finishing the novel at 5 in the morning.
Writer-director Dai has been based in Paris for many years, and ''Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress" plays very much like a French film that merely happens to be set in China. The relationship between the two men and the Seamstress -- the only name she's known by -- ultimately owes quite a bit to ''Jules and Jim," most of all in its sense of young people whose minds and hearts are moving at equally breakneck speed. There's danger here, and not just from the Red Guards.
But there's a prankish and ingenious wit too, and a benevolence that extends to all the characters, including the Seamstress' tailor grandfather, who listens to Luo's version of ''The Count of Monte Cristo" and relishes the phrase ''Champs Elysees" as if it were ripe fruit. The sensuousness extends to the stunning natural surroundings, vertical mountain walls the locals have lived on for so many centuries they hardly see them anymore.
Even gorges are more fragile than Balzac, though, as Luo and Ma learn when they grow into middle age. Literature in this movie functions as a universal passcode that opens minds, saves lives, and launches people into the greater world, and Dai is smart enough to know this comes at a cost. He makes the point subtly -- perhaps too subtly for moviegoers who like more meat on their story. At times ''Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress" feels strangely lacking in impact, as though something more lasting might be said if Dai bothered to say it louder. In the end, it's a lovely little movie about very big things, and the smallness both illuminates it and keeps it from greatness.
Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com.