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.