Mao's Last Dancer (2009) / Drama
MPAA Rated: PG for a brief violent image, some sensuality, language and incidental smoking
Running time: 117 min.
Cast: Chi Cao, Bruce Greenwood, Amanda Schull, Wen Bin Huang, Ferdinand Hoang, Kyle Maclachlan, Chengwu Guo, Zhang Su, Camilla Vergotis, Penne Hackforth-Jones, Shuang Bao Wang, Joan Chen, Chris Kirby
Director: Bruce Beresford
Screenplay: Jan Sardi (based on the autobiography by Cunxin Li)
Review published July 4, 2011
Based on Li Cunxin's autobiographical memoir, Mao's Last Dancer relates the story of how a peasant boy was plucked from his impoverished family at an early age to become a ballet dancer in the Beijing Dance Academy in Communist China in the early 1970s to become one of the top performers in the world. After arriving in Houston, TX in the early 1980s as part of a Houston Ballet Company's student exchange program. Li (Cao) made headlines with his attempt to stay in the Western world he had been told all of his life to despise. Bruce Greenwood (Star Trek, National Treasure: Book of Secrets) supports as Li's UK-born Houston ballet director, Ben Stevenson, while Amanda Schull (Center Stage, Sorority Wars) portrays Elizabeth, the American woman he'd fall for during his short stay in the States.
A mostly Australian production, Bruce Beresford (The Contract, Double Jeopardy) directs one of his better films in years telling an inspirational tale of overcoming the many obstacles in order to find a life of freedom and belief in oneself, even at the cost of family and country. The film comes to life during the ballet scenes, with some beautifully presented pieces that Beresford successfully showcases without many cuts or extreme close-ups, allowing us in the audience to appreciate the beauty and serenity of a filmed ballet performance. The drama is conventional, though it has all of the spit and polish that biopic audiences generally appreciate. Like the ballet dancers themselves, the script by Jan Sardi (The Notebook, Love's Brother) hits the right notes at the right times in order to make this a feel-good, inspirational drama, even though Li's personal story doesn't always conform to proper dramatic structure. Some of the events get compressed to tidy up the story, and some is just injected for dramatic effect, especially as the film goes for its tear-jerker climax.
The film runs themes about finding one's ability to be free and creative, not only in the rigorous and exacting world of professional ballet, but also in one's personal life, and in world politics as well. The depiction of China is a mix of reflection on its repressive regime and nostalgia for its beauty and people, and the film averts making any overt political statements about China other than to show how life had been under the Maoist regime, except as it relates to personal expression and decisions. On top of the intrigue, the film is, also like ballet, about achieving grace and inner peace through hard work and determination.
What keeps Mao's Last Dancer from being a great film is the feeling that much of Li's story has been movie-fied by increasing the importance of certain events of his life (one scenes has his attempt to stay in the U.S. making a splash newspaper headline that would rival a proclamation of war). While there is no doubt that his story is remarkable, as is the story if many immigrants from oppressive countries, it is really for his ability to dance, and dance well, that makes Li's story significant. But his tale is constrained somewhat by Li's romantic entanglements, which are defined in a glossed-over and not completely satisfying way, as we're never quite sure of the dynamic of any particular relationship and why they progress the way they do, perhaps because they make Li seem less sympathetic, or perhaps because the cast is full of professional dancers who would have trouble with properly carrying the scenes of heart-wrenching, emotional drama.
With a competent dramatic and stellar dance performance by Chi Cao, a first-time actor who is himself a graduate of the Beijing Dance Academy, Mao's Last Dancer is a fine, glossy, well-choreographed dance drama that tells an interesting tale of a man overcoming formidable adversities in order to live the life the way he saw fit, rather than the way someone else chose for him.
©2011 Vince Leo