Mao’s Last Dancer

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Review by Jane Freebury

You have to like a film with a good story to tell. Granted, this is based on a personal memoir, Li Cunxin’s book of the same name, but this is good old-fashioned movie blockbuster material.

To begin with there’s a lifestory set against the sweep of contemporary Chinese history. For those who haven’t read the best-seller—must admit I haven’t—it’s about a young boy plucked from a peasant family in Shandong province in 1972 to train as a ballet dancer in Beijing. As an 11-year-old in a closed political system, all he knows is that he wants to join the Red Guard and fight for Chairman Mao.

With impeccable timing, Mao’s Last Dancer opens on the day China celebrates its 60th year as a communist state.

In an American director’s hands, Li Cunxin’s lifestory might have become a homily about how talent and ambition will rise to the top in the US. But it cannot rightly be turned into such a story. Young Li, the sixth of seven brothers, didn’t want to leave home, had difficulties adapting to the rigors of Madame Mao’s academy, misses his gentle mother (Joan Chen) and father, and has to be instilled with a love of ballet.

Until he watches a video of Mikhail Baryshnikov, the dancer who defected, Li fails to see the point. But the Russian in full flight, athletic, strong and graceful as a gazelle, is an awesome sight. This grainy black-and-white snippet and all ballet scenes from practice at the bars to staged performance, are glorious to watch. They are the film’s highlights, that’s for sure.

When Li becomes inspired it naturally leads to a determination to become really accomplished. In time he is singled out to join a summer school in Houston, Texas, and the rest is history. He falls in love and marries an American and, though conflicted about the effect his move to the West is having on his family, he begins a career as a solo dancer.

In big picture stories, details still matter. As the adult Li Cinxin, Chi Cao is unquestionably dynamic on stage and has leading man looks but his fractured English wasn’t so convincing. And besides Jack Thompson’s welcome baritone in his cameo as an American judge, there was some clunky Aussie-accented acting in there too.

Li Cinxin’s lifestory is fascinating and I’ve always liked director Bruce (Breaker Morant, Black Robe) Beresford’s robust style because he has a good yarn to tell. However, he has a tendency to set up simple oppositions between characters where you need more subtlety and nuance to remain interesting over two hours. So long, but still good blockbuster entertainment.

In a capsule: Good blockbuster entertainment with a fascinating true story told in robust style set against the sweep of contemporary Chinese history. Great to look at and all the ballet sequences are quite superb, though the acting is uneven and the storytelling a bit too broad brush.

3.5 stars