MOST HONG KONG people take the freedom to be able to pursue knowledge for granted. But film director and novelist Dai Sijie is definitely not one of them after his ordeal during the Cultural Revolution. 'I was about 20 and was sent to a rural village for re-education in the 1970s,' Dai recalls. 'I loved books, but during that time a lot of books were destroyed. I had to steal books and read them secretly,' says the 48-year-old, who has been living in France since 1984. Such experiences became the material for Dai's first novel, Balzac And The Little Chinese Seamstress, published in 2000 in French. The autobiographical novel became an overnight sensation in France. Dai saw his tale as great material for a movie as well. He made the film on the mainland the following year. It was the opening film of the 25th French Cinepanorama held in Hong Kong last December. In the 1970s, Dai and his friend Luo, both from intellectual families, were sent to a rural village for Maoist re-education. While struggling to preserve their knowledge of the modern world, the two fall for the Little Seamstress there. They want to secretly transform her through the teaching of Western classics. Liu Ye, who won the Golden Horse award for best actor, plays the role of Dai. He says he was moved by the script. 'It is the director's memory and it touched me so much,' says Liu, 24. Both in the film and in real life, the seamstress is taught Honore de Balzac's works by Dai and Luo, and in the end, she seeks a new life. Balzac (1799-1850) is hailed as one of the greatest French classical writers. His famous novels include Pere Goriot (1834) and Cousin Bette (1846). Dai's experience tells him that a book or a piece of music can change one's life, as this happened to the girl he once loved. 'She liked Balzac's novels a lot. The women in Balzac's world possess strong feminist characteristics. They were different from the women in her world, who lived a simple life, worked hard and had babies,' Dai says. Dai was born and raised on the mainland. He was awarded a scholarship to study in France in 1984. Because of his interest in films, he enrolled in the French Film School and became a filmmaker after graduating. He won the Jean Vigo Award with his first short film, China, My Sorrow, in 1989. Balzac And The Little Chinese Seamstress is his fourth film. The book was a bestseller and the film has been nominated as one of the best foreign language entries at this year's Golden Globe awards. But the book has no Chinese translation and the film cannot be screened in China. 'The (mainland) authorities don't agree with the story, although they allowed us to film in China,' Dai says. 'My friend Gao Xingjian (Nobel prize winner) once said that if he couldn't do what he wanted to do, the place he lived was not his country.' Dai has no desire to move back to China, but he still wants to tell stories about Chinese people. Balzac And The Little Chinese Seamstress is an eye-opener for young people and international audiences alike. 'I hope to show young people what happened in China at that time,' he says. Born after the Cultural Revolution, lead actor Liu says he has learned a lot through making the film. 'I didn't know anything about the Cultural Revolution. Even my parents refuse to tell me anything, but now I know more about this part of history. 'It also demonstrates Chinese people's desperation for knowledge, which is something that foreigners don't know,' he says.