Sijie dreamily adapts his own autobiographical novel depicting life in a remote Chinese mountain village in 1971. City boys Luo (Chen) and Ma (Liu) are sent to be re-educated under Mao's Cultural Revolution. The young men perform manual labor under the watchful eyes of the village chief (Wang) and both become attracted to the nameless young woman (Zhou) of the title, reading to her from a secreted cache of Western books (including Balzac, Flaubert, and Dumas) and teaching her to read and write. There is eventual separation and loss and an abrupt epilogue that shows the men 20 years later wondering whatever happened to the girl they once knew. Mandarin and French with subtitles.
For most Americans with little knowledge of Chinese history, this movie will provide a naturally beautiful and culturally specific view into the Three Gorges region during the Cultural Revolution in the 70s, a time when all non-communist creative works were forbidden. From the forced labor/re-education to the emotional and intellectual longings of the protagonists, you see very clearly what life may have been like. As a westerner accustomed to general freedoms, this time and place is startling, not least because one finds that the breathtaking landscape later ends up submerged due to the Three Gorges Dam project.