Bruce Beresford (Tender Mercies, Driving Miss Daisy) brings the memoir of famed Chinese ballet dancer Li Cunxin to the big screen in Mao’s Last Dancer. At times schmaltzy, Mao’s Last Dancer is nevertheless an enjoyable, if predictably tear-jerking look at one man’s journey from Chinese peasant to a star of the Houston Ballet.
Li begins in the film as an 11-year-old boy in rural China. When he is fortuitously chosen to attend the Beijing Dance Academy, his life becomes a tool of the state: He is classically trained in ballet but schooled in communist ideology first and foremost. These are some of the most interesting moments of the film, as life under Chairman Mao is a fascinatingly foreign existence. The ballets are transformed into political propaganda to suit Madame Mao, and Li’s training is couched in terms of his duty to the Communist Party.
This all changes, of course, when Li is invited to dance at the Houston Ballet in the United States. Ultimately, he is won over by such superficial and stilted clichés as a pretty American girl and the funloving disco life, but he also relishes a genuine feeling of personal freedom. “I dance better when I’m here,” he claims, just at the point when he is obligated to return to China.
What ensues is a battle to keep Li in the U.S., culminating in the Chinese Embassy holding Li hostage for 21 hours. It makes for compelling cinema and will perhaps be an unwelcome reminder of strained Sino-American relations.
For those of us young enough not to remember Li’s story, I’ll refrain from spoiling the film’s ending. Suffice it to say that Chi Cao does an excellent job as Li, the film’s dance scenes are beautiful (to this untrained eye), and the Chinese-American culture clash (aside from the contrived, childlike portrayal of the Chinese peasants) is interesting. If you’re looking for a film with guaranteed emotion and pretty dance scenes that’s also easy to digest, look no further.Mao’s Last Dancer Opening Friday, September 24th Ridgeway Four