Dai Sijie writes and films Chinese stories that are lyrically beautiful and also popular with audiences in Western countries. Now his underutilized skill is put to use in projects designed with cross-cultural appeal, writes Raymond Zhou.
Dai Sijie is like a bridge. He connects the medium of literature with that of film; and at the same time he links up the world of China, where he was born and grew up, with that of France, where he attained fame, as both a novelist and a film director.
I had always wanted to talk to Dai ever since I saw Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress a decade ago. Another reason is that he is a Chinese expatriate who mastered a foreign language, French in this case, to the point of publishing professional writings in it - a point that is inspiring to me.
Imagine my surprise when I finally met him during the 2013 Montreal World Film Festival, where both he and I were serving as jury members, and he told me nobody expected his novel of the same name, upon which the film was based, to be a success. Not his publisher. Not even he himself. The publisher reluctantly agreed to an initial print run of 3,000 copies, partly because they saw it as an homage to great literature, with Balzac in the title and all.
A scene from film Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress features Zhou Xun (right) and Chen Kun. Provided to China Daily
Dai, born in 1954 in Fujian province and sent down to Sichuan as a youth, first went to France in 1984 to study film. He got into a prestigious school that enrolled only 20 students a year in its film-directing program. "Doing my first feature was pretty easy," he said. Unlike in other countries, his second and third movies ran into more difficulties and failed to garner the kind of attention his debut feature received. "They were French stories with a supernatural touch," he said.
Then came the unexpected success of Balzac, and a film adaptation was inevitable. He and his film company cast Zhang Ziyi in the role of the female lead, as the latter had just become an international star with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. But then Dai ran into Zhou Xun and thought Zhou was a better fit.
The trio of leads in this movie - Zhou Xun, Chen Kun and Liu Ye - were not yet stars when Dai cast them. In just a couple of years, all three of them would go on to be bona fide A-listers in Chinese showbiz. You have to give credit to Dai for having that kind of foresight - or maybe luck.
"This is a romantic story and it is about books. So, I wanted actors to be good-looking, not people on the street. This movie would not work with realism," Dai explained. Some of the story elements were from his own life. "A friend of mine dated a local girl while we were both 'sent-down youths' in rural Sichuan. The girl in real life was a farmer and had got some basic education. She eventually left for the city."
When I asked Dai about the possible homosexual sentiments between the two male characters, he said it was not intentional. He was shocked when he first heard it from a college student in America who read the novel. "That young man told me it was the most beautiful gay story he had seen and I told him there was nothing between them but friendship."
Now that he has had more time to mull over the issue, he believes there are many people of the same sex in their early youth whose friendship is so intense it borders on romantic love, yet there is no sexual intimacy involved. Dai denies he designed this kind of relationship to pander to Western tastes, but he admits that, having stayed in France for so long and having immersed himself in French literature, he intuitively understands what they like on the page or the screen.
"It's not a bad thing," he adds. "I always thought this kind of cross-cultural skill would come in handy for China when it needs better communication with the Western world."
As a matter of fact, he feels unappreciated back in China, where his success in France as a filmmaking author has received scant attention. In China you are either a writer or a director. Sure, you can direct a script you wrote, but few authors have crossed over to filmmaking with equal aplomb or acclaim. Besides, he did it backwards, making it in films and then crossing over to writing, a move that defies logic in China.
Albeit unanticipated, his French-language novels have received global distribution, with more than two-dozen language versions for some. "If you find traces of Flaubert or Balzac in them, well, I consider it flattering because theirs are the works I have been studying all these years." However, the movie failed to be categorized as a co-production because the authorities at that time saw Balzac as too glaring of a foreign influence.