Mao's Last Dancer
Starring Chi Cao and Bruce Greenwood. In English and Mandarin with subtitles. Rated G. Opens Friday, May 14, at the Fifth Avenue Cinemas and the Cinemark Tinseltown
Films about fine art—especially ballet—require a certain finesse. So it's a testament to the power of real-life dancer Li Cunxin's life story, and also the soaring ballet sequences shown here, that they can overcome Bruce Beresford's often clunky direction. Based on Li's bestselling autobiography, Mao's Last Dancer flashes back and forth from newcomer Li's entrance to the Houston Ballet to his peasant farming family roots and child-student time at the gruelling Beijing Dance Academy.
Watch the trailer for Mao's Last Dancer.
The film is most engrossing in those early years, building an authentic sense for how it might feel for a village boy to be plucked by the Red Guard in 1972 and shipped to the prestigious academy. There, he's put through gruelling drills and badgered for whimpering in his bed at night.
Along the way, the film vividly traces the unlikely history of ballet in China, from the classical form passed down from Russia to the gun-toting propaganda forced upon dancers by Madame Mao.
When charismatic Houston Ballet artistic director Ben Stevenson (Bruce Greenwood) handpicks Li (Chi Cao) in 1980 for a cultural exchange, Li is warned by the Communist party to resist the lures of capitalist society. Of course, he's smitten by the glass-towered wonderland of his new Texas oil-boom town, not to mention at least one of the dancers, and soon he has to decide: does he defect and never see his family again?
On American soil, the film becomes more conventional, with Li's wide-eyed surprise at such novelties as soaker tubs and Pepsi. By the time there's a standoff with the Chinese consulate, the politics of Communist meanies against American freedom fighters is too black and white.
But there is respite. Greenwood lets loose on one of his most colourful performances as the fey and politically savvy Brit Stevenson (everything is “fantastic!”). And ballet fans can bask in the wide-shot dance sequences, with stunningly staged renditions of Swan Lake and The Rite of Spring.
The movie itself is not as exquisite with its footwork, but even played out in broad steps, Li's journey is a fascinating story of East meeting West.