A SURVIVOR OF the Cultural Revolution, Paris-based director Dai Sijie has bittersweet memories of his youth. At 17, he was sent to a remote village in Sichuan for 're-education', where he was forced to toil in coal mines and carry buckets of excrement up and down a mountain to fertilise fields. With every splash from the buckets on to his shoulders, the bright young man lost hope for the future. His attitude changed, however, when he and a friend, Luo, learned that a fellow student in the village had a stash of forbidden European classics, including the works of Balzac, Tolstoy and Flaubert. They broke into his home and stole the books, which opened up a world of literature and Western romance for the pair. Thirty years on, a nostalgic Dai tells the story in his fourth film, The Little Chinese Seamstress, which has been nominated for best foreign film at the Golden Globes Awards and opens in Hong Kong next Thursday. 'The Cultural Revolution was a miserable and hopeless time,' says Dai, who last month brought his film to Hong Kong for the 25th French Cinepanorama. 'But it was also a time when many beautiful things in life happened. I got to learn Western literature and discovered a thing called love.' Based on Dai's best-selling first novel, Balzac And The Little Chinese Seamstress, the Chinese-language, semi-autobiographical film tells the story of two friends, Ma (Liu Ye) and Luo (Chen Kun), who meet a seamstress (Zhou Xun) in the village where they are sent in the early 1970s. With her help, the pair steal a suitcase of books from an educated villager and secretely pore through them at night. Luo, who is in love with the illiterate seamstress, also reads the books to her. The girl, in return, becomes infatuated with not only Balzac but also Luo. Influenced profoundly by the writing, however, she eventually leaves him for the world outside the village. In reality, the girl who the director and his old friend met many years ago in Sichuan was a pretty but illiterate peasant. Dai says both he and Luo loved her, though Luo was more passionate. 'My friend thought she was very unsophisticated and silly. He wanted to transform her with literature,' he says, explaining that the film's theme is about how men secretly want to change women. 'When we are young, we want to change the women we love into our ideal type. It's every man's dream.' But isn't it always men who accuse women of trying to change them? 'Women want to manipulate men; men want to change women. Their intentions are different in nature. Yet men's dreams can never come true because women are cleverer and they often end up overtaking men,' Dai laughs. The 48-year-old believes in the life-changing power of literature, which had enlightened him and his two friends during a time when most books and films were banned. 'We didn't have much in our material life when we were young,' he says. 'When we found the books, we became frantically in love with literature. I am fond of literature and I imagine it can change one's life.' The literature Dai dabbled with during his 're-education' opened him to Western literature, although he is not sure to what extent it transformed him. Born in Fujian province in 1954, Dai was separated from his 'bourgeois doctor' parents and sent to Sichuan from 1971 to 1974. After he was freed, he returned to school and after the Cultural Revolution ended in 1976, he studied art history at university. In the early 1980s, Dai, Luo and the peasant woman, who had long separated from each other, reunited. Luo, who had become a teacher, and the woman, a factory worker, fell in love again. Yet they split not long after. In 1984, Dai was awarded a scholarship to study in France, where he has since lived. He still keeps in touch with Luo, but both have lost contact with the woman. When asked if he still loves her, Dai looks away and says: 'Yes.' Between 1989 and 1998 he made three films, including China, My Sorrow (1989), which features a 13-year-old boy arrested during the Cultural Revolution. In 2000, Balzac And The Little Chinese Seamstress, was published in French and immediately became a best-seller in Europe. The novel won him five awards and led to publication deals in 30 countries. An English-language version was released in 2001 and a Chinese-language edition is expected on the mainland and Taiwan later this year. 'This is very good,' says Anne Noble, French publisher Gallimard's foreign rights director. 'We never [before] got 30 contracts for a writer's first novel. The book is about the joy of reading and how reading can open our mind. It's a universal theme and people like it even if they don't care about the Cultural Revolution.' Despite the story being set in one of China's darkest periods, it contains none of the desperation and despair so often depicted in Chinese films portraying the Cultural Revolution. Balzac is more of a romantic comedy. In one fictional scene, Ma, who takes his beloved violin to the village, offers to play the 'bourgeois toy' to the peasants to save it from being smashed by the village head. When asked the name of the song, a quick-thinking Luo says it is called Mozart Always Thinks Of Chairman Mao. Actor Liu Ye, who won a Golden Horse Best Actor for Stanley Kwan Kam-pang's gay-themed Lan Yu, believes the lack of tragic feel to Balzac owes much to Dai's rich experiences in life. 'I think Dai has overcome the stage when he would plunge into despair when recalling his experience,' he says. 'Many people were stuck in remote villages even after the Cultural Revolution. But Dai was lucky to have left. He could put the misery aside and create something beautiful in the film.' Nevertheless, Dai has never forgotten his four years of suffering in the camp. 'I was very reluctant to work and I was immensely stressed,' he says. 'They said we were to stay in the village forever and to carry the excrement to the fields for the rest of our life. I felt so hopeless.' So disconsolate were Dai and Luo that they sometimes thought up ways to get out of work. Once, they clandestinely put a clock forward to fool the village heads into finishing work at the mine earlier than usual - a scene portrayed in the film. 'Now when I look back, I still find the whole experience miserable,' Dai says. 'The whole movement was entirely preposterous. Mao Zedong said, 'Under the leadership of communism, any miracle in life can be created.' It's so true,' he says, laughing sarcastically. Now Dai is pinning his hopes on another miracle: he hopes the film will be shown on the mainland. Before winning approval from the Chinese authorities to shoot the film in Sichuan, he had been in talks with officials for a year and convinced them that the film would be good for China's international image. 'We told them the film portrayed Chinese people as literature lovers. But when the film came out, they decided that it was not good enough,' Dai says. 'I hope the film can be shown in China because it's a story about Chinese people. I think they will like it.' Balzac And The Little Chinese Seamstress opens on January 23.