Director: Bruce Beresford
Cast: Chi Cao, Bruce Greenwood, Kyle Maclachlan, Joan Chen
RunTime: 1 hr 59 mins
Released By: Golden Village
Rating: PG (Some Sexual References)
Official Website: http://www.maoslastdancermovie.com/
Opening Day: 22 April 2010
From a gruelling apprenticeship as a classical dancer in communist China, to the glory of creative freedom in America, MAO'S LAST DANCER tells an inspirational true story of a small boy's extraordinary journey from poverty to international stardom. But, there is a painful price to be paid for his quest for self expression. The movie captures the intoxicating effects of first love and celebrity, the pain of exile, and ultimately the triumph of individual endeavour over ideology. Filmed in China, the US and Australia and with a brilliant performance from Chi Cao as Li Cunxin, MAO'S LAST DANCER is an exhilarating exploration of what it means to be free.
Based on the similarly titled best-selling autobiography by Li Cunxin, the Chinese ballet dancer who defected to the United States in 1981, “Mao's Last Dancer” delivers a bit of didacticism that's needed in a film of this ilk – the obstacles towards the dream, the troubled emotional states stemming from them, the redemption received from overcoming them, and the inspiration that it eventually expresses. It is a sturdily constructed addition to the genre that in its best scenes, evinces the idea of ambition delivered upon by talent and the idea of freedom delivered through passion.
Jan Sardi's script splits its focus between a “present-day” Houston in 1981, and the journey of a young Cunxin (Guo Chengwu) in 1972 after having been plucked from his village and mother (Joan Chen) to the capital in order to participate in “political ballet” – a term to coin the regime's insistence on arts that serviced its primary purpose of propaganda. As the adult Cunxin (a remarkable Cao Chi) grows more enamoured with the art of ballet after discovering its more creative outlets, he grows in confidence and physique making him the standout performer of his troupe, bringing him to the attention of Ben Stevenson (Bruce Greenwood), the artistic director of the Houston Ballet Academy who takes as much an interest in Cunxin's rise to fame in the United States as he does his own reputation.
In the experienced hands of director, Bruce Beresford, there's a certain sweep in the film's look at Cunxin – from the humblest of beginnings as a peasant to a world-class performer, and in the middle all the political and romantic trappings that plagued his decision to go beyond a call of duty. Beresford's exceptional resume of works include “Driving Miss Daisy”, “Tender Mercies”, “Black Robe” and “Evelyn”, amongst a bounty of durable character studies.
With a penetrative understanding of the landscape of ambition and passion, Beresford reminds us to look at Cunxin objectively when he doesn't always cut a sympathetic figure – the characterisation relents a degree of selfishness in his actions – but is redeemed by an immense guilt of defecting his country and abandoning his family. But the film knows when to shift gears when the going gets tough. He shoots the tremendous ballet sequences with a caressing gaze, almost as a visual foil to the chaos that ensues from Cunxin's decisions. Another significant aspect of the film's charm is its presentation of culture shocks and culture clashes; the almost requisite fish-out-of-water humour tempered with a keener moments of Cunxin being unable to comprehend the dissonance between what he was taught about the “darkness” of capitalism by his political party when he's confronted with the boundless spending power of an 80s' era United States.
And it certainly does bare its teeth when it takes the role of a political drama – centralised around an international incident at the Consulate-General of the People's Republic of China in Houston – that in its most urgent form, consistently elucidates a stern indictment on the fallacies and stranglehold of Mao's communist China and its remnants. There's no question in the film's (or for that matter Li Cunxin's) state of mind over China's ideology during the era, especially during its infamous Cultural Revolution. Yet the film also tacitly acknowledges that its subject owes its very talents and fortitude to the punishing regime that attempted to stifle it.
(Hits all the right emotional buttons)
Review by Justin Deimen