Two city boys, Luo and Ma, compete for the affections of an illiterate seamstress by reading to her from an illicit stash of Western books.
Inspired by his own 're-education' during the Cultural Revolution, Dai Sijie's novel was deservedly an international bestseller. But his screen adaptation errs on the side of pictorialism in its effort to capture the text's poetic charm.
Consequently, the cruel realities of the early 1970s are airbrushed out and replaced by rugged vistas and fairy-tale grottos in which city boys Chen Kun and Liu Ye compete for the affections of illiterate seamstress Zhou Xun by reading to her from an illicit stash of Western books.
Recalling Zhang Yimou's recent outings in its sympathy for the marginalised, this is a film with its heart in the right place. Moreover, it's appealingly played, with Zhou confirming the impression made in Suzhou River and Beijing Bicycle.
Sumptuous, but the lack of historical rigour and a sentimental coda reduce its impact.