Mao's Last Dancer

Mao's Last Dancer
Made in: Australia
Language: English, Chinese (Mandarin)
Director: Bruce Beresford
Starring: Chi Cao, Bruce Greenwood, Aden Young, Camilla Vergotis, Kyle MacLachlan, Amanda Schull, Penne Hackforth-Jones
Year: 2009

Synopsis: Based on the autobiography of acclaimed ballet dancer Li Cunxin. The film chronicles Li's early start in ballet, after having been selected by government officials in China as a young candidate to participate in Madame Mao's Dance Academy.

After departing his humble village in Shandong Province, young Li eventually finds himself in Beijing enduring hours of grueling ballet training. Li only discovers his talent through his instructor, Chan (Su Zhang), a man more interested in the artistic integrity of dance as opposed to using it as a means to promote Communist propaganda.

During a cultural exchange visit to Beijing in 1981, Ben Stevenson (Bruce Greenwood), the artistic director of the Houston Ballet, notices Li's talent. Li is invited to the US to train with Stevenson and his company, where he becomes a star.

While in Houston, Li falls in love with Liz Mackey (Amanda Schull), an aspiring dancer. Life in America begins allowing Li to achieve his ballet dreams, and he finds himself torn between patriotism and embracing his new found freedom.

With the help of expert immigration attorney Charles Foster (Kyle MacLachlan - I'm glad to see that he's still getting work), Li attempts to defy his government in an attempt to remain stateside.

The potential consequences are many, including endangering Li's family and causing a politically charged international incident.

The Good: Mao's Last Dancer is very well structured in some ways. The story isn't told in a completely linear fashion, as we see various segments of Li's life intercut and juxtaposed in a style somewhat reminiscent of Christopher Nolan's cutting technique. The end result is quite effective.

The scenes of Li's early childhood, which take place in China during the late 70's, look pretty authentic and we get a pretty accurate feel of the country's authoritarian system. And of course, the ballet sequences are very well done. Chi Cao's athletic prowess is very well filmed, and are arguably the strongest parts of the movie.

The Bad: Li's romance with Liz Mackey doesn't seem developed enough, and his later relationship with Australian ballet star Mary McKendry (Camilla Vergotis) just sort of materializes out of nowhere. In other words, the film doesn't quite carry the emotional heft that was promised in the trailer.

Who would like this movie: Mao's Last Dancer is for you if you're a ballet fan. But as a film, the story is pretty ho-hum overall. The parts of the film in between the most dramatic scenes are disjointed and rushed, and seem more like filler.

In terms of political commentary, there's nothing said about China's totalitarian system that we don't already know of. And the plot is structured as a pre-packaged, by-the-numbers underdog story which pretty much goes like this: a poor village boy goes to another country, who grows up to achieve his dream, falls in love, and returns to his home as a hero.

I'm sure that the true journey of Li Cunxin's life was wrought with emotional intensity and truly heartfelt moments, but this filmed version of his life, despite the great dance choreography and cinematography, falls short in making a lasting impression with us.

(2 and a half stars out of 4)

Review written by: Joe Yang

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