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Movie Review: Mao’s Last Dancer

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Until you get to the last few scenes of Bruce Beresford’s 2009 screen adaptation of the autobiography of Chinese ballet star Li Cunxin Mao’s Last Dancer it plays like one of those anti-communist propaganda films Hollywood used to turn out with regularity back in the fifties and sixties. It may have been Russia. It may have been one of the Eastern European satellites. In this case it’s China.

A young boy is taken from his poverty stricken family. He is placed in a school where he is both trained robotically in some specific skill and indoctrinated in Communist ideology. He becomes adept at his craft and gets a chance to study in the United States. There he sees the wonders of capitalism, falls in love, marries, conquers the world with his excellence at his craft, and defects to the West. The ruthless Communist government tries to force him to return to the homeland, but well intentioned Americans stop them. He is allowed to remain in the States, but he will never be allowed back in China and will never see his family again.

Nothing here that wouldn’t have played back in the days when Chairman Mao actually ruled the roost, but one would have to wonder about the wisdom of making this kind of propaganda film in 2009 when China, while still in many respects the big bad bogey man, has become the loan shark of the world.

It seems at least mite hypocritical to be bad mouthing the country at a time when without their money pouring into our bonds and securities, we might be well having a financial crisis that dwarfs current problems. It is not strange then that when you get to the end of the film, it turns out that China has changed. Li’s parents are permitted to surprise him in America. His first marriage doesn’t last (just as the Chinese liaison trying to persuade him not to defect predicted). He is allowed to visit his home in China and even dances in the village for his old ballet teacher. It is a heartwarming fairy tale ending where everyone (anti-communists and ex-communists included) lives happily ever after.

Politics aside, the film is a more or less typical bio pic in which a poor boy works hard to develop a talent and rises to become a star. It may well be the truth of Li Cunxin’s life, but it is a truth we have seen many times before. Details may be different, but the story is either archetypal or cliché depending on the viewer’s level of tolerance. The quality of the film then would seem to rest in the details as opposed to the rather predictable plot.

So, what then do the details have going for them. First of all, and most important, is the dancing. Li Cunxin is an accomplished ballet dancer; he is played as an adult by Chi Cao, Principal Dancer with the Birmingham Royal Ballet. Scenes from The Rites of Spring, Swan Lake, and Don Quixote are magical. Chi Cao and his partners, Camilla Vergotis and Madeleine Eastoe, are exquisite performers. Even a scene from a Chinese propaganda dance choreographed to conform to the demands of the government flunkies has a power and excitement that belies its intent. It is in the dancing that the film really shines.

The structure of the film is interesting. Instead of straight linear narrative, Jan Sardi’s screen play interweaves the film’s present with Li’s arrival in the States with scenes from his childhood and training in China. The use of subtitles in the Chinese scenes lends the film a welcome touch of realism, and while many of the settings reflect the gloominess of China under the Communists, there is some beautiful scenery as well. The Chinese cast is led by the veteran Joan Chen in an admirably touching performance.

Unfortunately the American cast though certainly adequate is less impressive. Bruce Greenwood ad Ben Stevenson, the director of the Houston Ballet, does a lot of mincing around, but little else. Kyle MacLachlan doesn’t quite manage to convince as a high powered immigration lawyer. Aden Young comes off as a good old Texas boy as the spouse of a prima ballerina. Amanda Schull, on the other hand, does a nice job as the less talented ballerina who becomes Li’s first wife.

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