I was down in Sydney a few weeks ago and managed to catch the world premiere of Australian director Bruce Beresford’s film, “Mao’s Last Dancer.” It is a beautiful story, beautifully told, in a film that combines the personal and the epic in an era of traumatic change for China.
The film takes its title and narrative from the autobiography of the renowned ballet dancer, Li Cunxin. His story is one of dogged personal courage and achievement. And yet, the elements that move the reader — and cinemagoer — so profoundly are those that deal with his love of family, his honest loyalty to friends and, despite all, to his country.
Li was born in January 1961 into a poor peasant family in Shandong Province. Mao Zedong’s so-called Great Leap Forward had, in reality, been a precipitous plunge into mass disaster, during which his engineered famine caused an estimated 30 million people to perish. The commune on which the Li family worked and lived had only a single public bath for more than 10,000 people, and barely enough food for everyone to survive.
This is a story as much about Li’s parents as it is about him; and, in the film, Joan Chen’s portrayal of his indomitable mother and Shuangbao Wang’s performance as the tough father are deeply moving.
They are naturally reluctant to let their 11-year-old son leave the commune for Beijing to train as a ballet dancer, but it was an undoubted honor to be chosen to dance, eventually, in the presence of China’s supreme patron and controller of ballet, Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing.
The Cultural Revolution was then in full, nasty swing, and the world was yet to learn of the Gang of Four. As the driving force behind the most heinous excesses of the Cultural Revolution, Jiang was a greatly feared Gang of One.
Back then, the young Li was proud to join the Red Guards. However, it is his sense of betrayal many years later — when he realizes the decimation of rural life brought about by Mao’s oppressive schemes — that moves him to abandon his homeland for life in the West.
Despite this, Li never forsakes his love for China, nor does he suppress his pride in his compatriots’ accomplishments.
The film follows the book’s overall narrative, which faithfully takes Li from his rigorous training at the Beijing Dance Academy (whose “honorary” artistic director was Jiang), where he is guided by the kind head of the choreography department, played with a subtle poignancy by Zhang Su. This teacher, whose real name was Xiao, was harassed and persecuted by the authorities, and his reappearance at the end of the story to see Li dance in China provides one of the film’s most affecting scenes.
In one episode from Li’s early years as a dancer, Jiang shows up to see a classical ballet. Displaying her own classic, beady stare, she lashes out at the teaching staff. “Where are the guns?” she exclaims. “Where are the grenades? Where are the political meanings?”
This encounter foreshadows a clampdown on ballet, reducing its repertoire to only four politically correct productions.
When, after seven years at the academy, Li is chosen to go to Houston, Texas, for further study, he is lectured by the head of the education bureau at the Ministry of Culture to “resist capitalist influences.”
Upon arriving in the United States, though, he finds what he had been told was the “filthy capitalist West” to be a friendly place where people enjoy a freedom of expression unheard of in China.
There are a few humorous incidents in Texas, due to Li’s naivete and limited command of English. In one, his mentor, choreographer Ben Stevenson (wonderfully played by Bruce Greenwood), asks him if he would like an English muffin.
“Mafun?!” shrieks Li.
Mafun — in Japanese, bafun — is the word for horse shit. Could the West really be as destitute as he was taught?
Li meets and falls in love with an aspiring dancer named Elizabeth. In a tensely dramatic series of scenes, they marry so that Li can remain in the U.S. However, he then visits the Chinese consulate and is forcibly detained. This creates a major international incident, until Li is released, only to be denounced by the Chinese government.
Thereafter, Li’s career goes from strength to strength. He joins the Houston Ballet and travels internationally. But he pines for his parents in China, fearing he will never see them again.
I said that the film follows the book faithfully, but there are, naturally, a number of differences between the two — and these enhance the filmic drama to great effect.
In reality, Li went back to China after his first stint in Texas, while in the film he doesn’t return for many years. In what is perhaps the most moving scene in the film — his parents’ visit to the U.S. to see their son dance — Li is told that they would be coming. In the film, the meeting is depicted differently; and, when they meet again, I tell you, my tear ducts went into overdrive.
Three actors play Li in the film. Chi Cao, a dancer with the Birmingham Royal Ballet, is outstanding as the adult Li. His performance in Igor Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” is inspired.
The choreography in this film is stunning, with long dance scenes shot both to showcase the ballet and heighten the film’s dramatic impact.
Li married again, to Australian ballet star Mary McKendry, and this is basically where the film leaves his story.
They subsequently moved to Australia, where Li forsook dance for stockbroking. He and Mary now live in Melbourne with their two girls and a boy, and the Father’s Day Council of Australia this year designated him Father of the Year.
There are a number of morals to this story. For me, though, the main one is that people can overcome all odds, reinvent themselves even more than once and have others accept them anew.
When Li was little, his father told him the story of the frog in the well that couldn’t escape, no matter how high it tried to jump. “Your destiny is down there in the well. There is no way you can get out of it,” he said.
Li jumped high, into the light — yet he never turned his back on those who had no choice but to remain in the dark.
In his life, in his book, and now through this film, he has made it possible for many others to leap and see the light.