Mao’s Last Dancer
This is one of those films that
you’re rooting for to work really well, but it’s sort of a mixed bag,
which is a shame, because it’s an inspiring true story.
Veteran Australian Director Bruce Beresford takes us back to Mao’s
, where, at least in the remote rural areas, people still lived as they had
for hundreds of years. In a
tiny village, a large family lives together in a run-down shack, scratching
out a mere existence from a little plot of worn soil, but they are not at
all unhappy. It’s the only
life they know. The fifth son,
Li Cunxin, seems like an ordinary boy in school: bright, yes, but a bit
tempestuous, which is a luxury not easily tolerated in a country still run
by rigid disciples of The Social Revolution.
One day, there is an extraordinary visit from the far-away government
cultural representatives seeking (at
the behest of Mao’s wife), particularly promising youngsters to enroll in
a school for dance. Li,
apparently blessed with a lithe, flexible, pre-pubescent body, is chosen,
and at the ripe age of 11, is sent off, really never to return.
He tells his Mother that he’s
frightened, and doesn’t really want to go, but she convinces him that it
is a great opportunity, and he should take advantage of it, and make his
Li (played by Wen Bin Huang as a child and Chengwu Guo as a
teenager), devastated and lonely at first, slowly learns classical dance,
and demonstrates a talent for the ballet.
He is chosen, as an adult (played by Chi Cao, who really is a
professional ballet dancer), to be the lead dancer in
academy’s company, which then develops an exchange program with the
. So Li suddenly finds himself
, in the 1980’s, a culture shock for anyone of any nationality.
This is where the movie takes a left turn, and then begins to get
uneven. Canadian Bruce
dance company’s director is almost believable enough, but Kyle MacLachlan,
, hams up the fake
accent enough to make him painful to watch (or maybe it’s his 92 episodes
of “Desperate Housewives”). Amanda
Schull, who is also trained as a ballerina, is really awkward as Li’s
first American girlfriend, the one with whom he wants to elope, and then,
All this creates quite a stir in the Chinese Embassy in Houston,
which stonewalls, obfuscates, and even briefly imprisons our budding ballet
star, but the Houston Ballet Company had a few contacts of their own
(notably a regular patron named Barbara Bush), and soon Li is free to be an
American (we’re still not sure where he learned English, but perhaps
that’s another story).
Li becomes so American that he winds up fighting with his girlfriend
over things like how neat the apartment is kept, and whose career is on
hiatus while the other’s is being served.
He becomes so American that he divorces his (underachieving) first
wife in order to marry his co-star on the stage of the ballet company.
Despite the threats of the Chinese consulates, Li does, eventually,
get to see his parents again, and is, eventually, able to return to his
little village as the conquering hero.
(After becoming the principal of the
Melbourne Ballet Company, he now resides in
with his thoroughly Anglicized family.)
It’s a sweet tale, and at times the dancing of Chi Cao soars, but
the film is so awkward in other places, and so dependent on an audience who
wants to watch people practicing ballet, that it will have a limited
following among moviegoers in the U.S.
Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, Pastor, Grace