Some say that art thrives best in the face of adversity and “Mao’s Last Dancer” is certainly proof of this. Based on the life and breathtaking ballet skills of Li Cunxin, who honed his art under the red flag of China’s Cultural Revolution, “Mao’s Last Dancer” could be a lesson in perseverance and keeping the flame alive, whatever the circumstances. In fact, seen in a certain light it has the tone and patina of a communist youth handbook; an intriguing facet of a film that was tailor-made in Hollywood.
Directed by Bruce Beresford (“Driving Miss Daisy” “Black Robe”), “Mao’s” zigzags from Li’s childhood in a village in rural Shangdong Province in the early 1970s, to his exchange student days in Texas where he pirouetted his way to success under the tutelage of Houston Ballet Company director Ben Stevenson (Bruce Greenwood). The rags-to-riches process is rather over the top, but perhaps Beresford hoped that the depictions of political oppression and the scene of a near-kidnapping of Li (it’s a classic Cold War moment) by communist officials trying to drag him back to the other side of the Bamboo Curtain, would have enough impact to obliterate the cliches. While that’s true in some spots, in others the film gets bogged down in melodrama.
The closeups of Li’s face (portrayed by Chi Cao, a principal dancer at the Birmingham Royal Ballet) as he emotes with much tear-shedding and teeth-gnashing are not only anachronistic, they’re kind of embarrassing. And Beresford has no hesitation in drawing Maoist China as repressed, poverty-stricken and hopelessly backward, while Texas and the United States come off as dazzlingly wealthy, and blindingly cool.
A good slice of the film, in fact, is about Li gazing about him in open-mouthed admiration at the freedom and affluence of America, where everything is “fantastic!” and everything back in the PRC is “bad, bad, bad.”
“Mao’s Last Dancer” was adapted from Li’s own autobiography, but much of the nuance and some of the episodes were sacrificed on the altar of Hollywood-style, bold-strokes storytelling. Still, Beresford keeps the faith in choice parts. Li’s (Wen Bin Huang) childhood scenes when he was an innocent country boy of 11, are shot with appreciative beauty.
That comes to an abrupt end when Madame Mao Jiang Qing unleashes a team of inspectors to comb the schools and pluck out would-be dancers to honor the glory of Chairman Mao Zedong. In Li’s case, it was a mere, unceremonious pointing of the finger by his schoolteacher, eager to please the Beijing officials by picking the most agile boy in her class. Li is terrified but his mother (Joan Chen) persuades her son to take advantage of the break of a lifetime and packs him off.
Once in the capital, Li is miserable — out of the hundreds of boys boarding at what can only be described as ballet boot camp, he’s singled out as “the pig,” unable to perform and lacking in grace. For a long time, the only way Li could get through the daily rigors of training was to look at the photograph of his family — the only one in his possession. But even that fate is far better than the tragedy that befalls one of his more charismatic dance instructors; one day he’s arrested for teaching “Western dance appreciation” to the pupils, shoved into the back of a truck and disappears forever. It’s one of the many moments of parting that Li endures throughout the film — he’s blessed with many life-altering encounters, only to have cherished relationships snatched out of his grasp.
Often the film comes dangerously close to total mediocrity, if not for the presence of Greenwood and Kyle MacLachlan as Li’s guardian, Charles Foster. Thanks to them, a faint whiff of stylish camp blows across the screen and elements of irony surface from beneath the layers of dead-seriousness. Li is a masterful dancer, but the more pig-headed and oppressive the Party were in their relations to Li, the harder he tried. Subsequently, he was able to soar higher than anyone expected. And though he insists “I dance better in the U.S. because I’m free,” a good part of him was still in Beijing, practicing in a small dark room by the light of a single candle.