Mao’s Last Dancer


It's a cultural phenomenon.

It’s a cultural phenomenon.

(2009) Biographical Drama (ATO) Chi Cao, Bruce Greenwood, Amanda Schull, Kyle MacLachlan, Joan Chen, Penne Hackforth-Jones, Chris Kirby, Suzie Steen, Madeleine Eastoe, Aden Young, Wen Bin Huang, Shu Guang Liang, Ye Wang, Neng Neng Zhiang, Wan Shi Xu, Shao Wei Yi, Jack Thompson, Nicholas Hammond, Hui Cong Zhan, Chengwu Guo. Directed by Bruce Beresford

Talent transcends politics. Hard work trumps propaganda. With the Winter Olympics of 2014 firmly underway we are treated to some of the finest athletes in the world doing their things which brings to mind the similarity between athletes and artists. The discipline it takes to attain the highest level of both can only be generated from within; what happens without is almost irrelevant.

Li Cunxin (Cao) is a young Chinese peasant boy (Huang) taken seemingly at random from an impoverished village to study dance during the Maoist era. He is brought to the Beijing Dance Academy where he is taught ballet techniques through brutal discipline and as a teen (Guo) becomes one of the leading lights at the studio.

Having performed to the highest standards in Beijing, he is sent on a student visa to the United States to dance with the Houston Ballet. Mainly a propaganda move to show Western audiences the superiority of Chinese techniques and dancers, the Ballet’s artistic director Ben Stevenson (Greenwood) is impressed by what he sees and the potential Li possesses.

Li himself is confused by the strange new world around him; it is much different than what the communist propagandists in China led him to believe it would be. For the first time he begins to doubt the wisdom of those who have been in charge of his life. He has found freedom and he is both amazed and overjoyed with it, but also a little bit afraid. To make matters “worse,” he has fallen in love with Elizabeth (Schull), a fellow dancer.

Ben, convinced his future is better in the West, implants the seed in Li’s head that leads to a seedling; when his three month visa is up, he determines to stay in the United States. Before he can be granted asylum, the Chinese government takes the extraordinary step of kidnapping him and imprisoning him in their consulate. Ben and Elizabeth hire lawyer Charles Foster (MacLachlan) to secure his release and have him stay where his heart lies.

Eventually, they succeed and Li is allowed to stay in America but Li knows the cost to his family will be high. The guilt of his act hangs over him and begins to affect his dancing. Will following his heart be worth the price he – and those he loves both in China and the United States – must pay?

Aussie director Beresford, best known for his Oscar-winning Driving Miss Daisy, takes a very low-key approach to the movie in terms of filmmaking (the story is another matter). The camera angles are fairly standard – Beresford is not out to prove anything about what an innovative director he is – and there is almost no computer assisted trickery. What you do have is a beautifully photographed movie about the human spirit that tries its best to be apolitical but doesn’t always succeed.

The ballet sequences are nothing short of amazing. Cao dances for the Birmingham Royal Ballet in England and his shortcomings as an actor are more than made up for by his strengths as a dancer. Schull also has experience as a dancer with the San Francisco Corps de Ballet and her duets with Cao are incendiary.

Cinematographer Peter James has a terrific eye for both the starkness of the Chinese village and the Dance Academy as well as the beauty of the dance. Yes, there are some scenes that are going to bring a tear to your eye – some perhaps unnecessarily so. Still, Li’s story is inspiring and it doesn’t have anything to do with politics – well, maybe a little – and everything to do with the human spirit and what it will overcome to achieve what it is meant to.

WHY RENT THIS: Gorgeous dance sequences. Beautifully photographed.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Overly manipulative in places.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some bad language and sensuality and one brief violent scene.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Li already knew Cao whose parents were his teachers at the Beijing Dance Academy; Cao was Li’s choice to play him in the movie.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $22.3M on a $22.4M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Farewell, My Concubine

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Septien

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