Maos Last Dancer Film Essay

“Mao’s Last Dancer” is the story of a young and flexible Chinese man who comes to America, where he’s seduced by disco, creative freedom and a honey-haired Houston virgin, and decides to stay.

It’s also about ballet and the modern history of China, as embodied in the true story of the dancer Li Cunxin, whose autobiography (from which the film takes its title) was a major best seller in Australia. But grands jetés and the Cultural Revolution are just exotic window dressing in “Mao’s Last Dancer,” which is, at heart, nothing more than an old-fashioned tear-jerker.

The film’s director, Bruce Beresford, an Australian, had his first American hits — “Tender Mercies” and “Crimes of the Heart” — during roughly the same early-1980s period when Mr. Li (played as an adult by the dancer Chi Cao) was allowed to travel to the United States to study at the Houston Ballet. It seems like a good bet that he’s exercising some nostalgia for that time in “Mao’s Last Dancer”: what fun there is in the film comes from the leisure suits, long hair and libidinous disco nights.

But Mr. Beresford and the screenwriter, Jan Sardi, also appear to be stuck in an earlier era of heavy-handed clichés about Chinese innocence and American experience. The juxtaposition of wide-eyed villagers and labored aphorisms with shopping malls and casual sex may accurately reflect Mr. Li’s book, but on screen it feels absurdly outdated.

The tears come during certain foolproof scenes that slam into place late in the film, especially Mr. Li’s reunion with his parents, who suffered humiliation and worse when he decided to defect. More numerous, however, are scenes like an unwatchable bedroom encounter between Mr. Li and his Texas girlfriend, Elizabeth (Amanda Schull), who declares herself a virgin and asks whether he knows what sex is.

Mr. Cao does nothing to embarrass himself in his screen debut, which is probably a testament to Mr. Beresford, whose skill with actors was established in “Crimes of the Heart” and “Driving Miss Daisy.” Kyle MacLachlan and Joan Chen turn in their usual solid work as Mr. Li’s lawyer and mother, and Bruce Greenwood brings a nicely smarmy self-regard to his portrayal of Ben Stevenson, the Houston troupe’s artistic director.

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Like most a-star-is-born biopics Bruce Beresford’s Mao’s Last Dancer affectionately charters the protagonist’s journey from an undiscovered hopeful to a celebrated artist – in this case from Chinese ballet prodigy Li Cunxin’s upbringing in rural China to his acclaimed dance career in America.  And like most films about dancers it accentuates – consciously or not – the sheer physical stagnancy of the movie-going experience, the audience inadvertently made to feel like blogs of lard fixed to a seat. We watch, in between bites of a choc top, swigs of coke and fistfuls of popcorn a lifetime of exercise, hard work and body-flailing condensed into two hours of triumph over adversity, practice makes perfect, dreams becoming reality and all that inspirational stuff that happens, or could happen, or (let’s face it) could happen but probably won’t when you’re somewhere other than a darkened auditorium watching another person’s success story.

Mao’s Last Dancer made me feel so lazy I went to the gym for a workout afterwards. More disconcertingly it also made me want to slip on some tights and shake my caboose, and anyone who sees me getting jiggy with it are likely to realise – after collecting their jaw from the floor and decreeing that there is no god – that my style is, shall we say, not ballet, but then again Li Cunxin probably doesn’t write film reviews so, um, each to their own. One can always fall back on the infallible logic of Douglas Adams’s infinite probability drive: somewhere, right now, someone just like Li Cunxin is watching a movie about a petulant blogger who cracks the big time. Or, if not the big time, at least gets a couple of random comments on his post. But I digress.

With Mao’s Last Dancer Beresford has made an uplifting film told with little bling or flair, a glossy but not over-celebratory treatment that feels believable enough but exists in that shiny alternate cinematic universe where real life tangents either fit neatly into the necessary rhythms required for interesting storytelling or are stuffed in regardless – either way it’s the same for audiences unfamiliar with the true life story and can’t distinguish between what loosely happened and what is pure fantasy and folly, which is just about everyone. The plot (based on Cunxin’s best-selling memoir) plays out like Billy Elliott crossed with Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story: Cunxin (Chi Cao) comes to the U.S. because of his prodigy-like dancing abilities and is seduced by the American way of life, digging his heels in by finding a girlfriend, chowing into greasy food, generating nods of approval from his teachers and standing ovations from his audiences and generally accruing the sort of vaguely self-indulgent lifestyle impermissible in the Chinese motherland.

Cunxin gets his big break when the star of the Houston ballet cops an injury a few hours before show time and Cunxin, as a last minute replacement, must learn the part in three hours, which paves the way for a very cinematic series of trailer-friendly lines i.e. “three hours! That’s impossible!”“No, he can do it! He’s aaammazzingg!” etcetera. The story gets some friction when Cunxin decides to disobey China’s wishes and stay in America, and when he announces to his Chinese brethren his pending marriage to girlfriend, that’s when the fit hits the shan.

Beresford uses Cunxin’s coming-to-America story as the film’s anchor and incorporates via flashback his life as a young boy and teenager in China, selected for greatness by the po-faced powers that be. Beresford’s approach feels too burnished and contrived for the film to resonate as much more than a watery-eyed tribute to an undeniably talented person with a genuinely interesting (even without the cinematic makeover) life story, but though a shade underwhelming it’s well handled, elegantly told and doesn’t outstay its welcome. Past the point at which Cunxin defects to the U.S. – illustrated via an entertaining standoff scene at the Chinese embassy, with Kyle MacLachlan as a calm-under-fire Southern attorney and god dang, it’s good to see Kyle MacLachlan even if, after all these years, he still can’t shirk that eerie Lynchian vibe – nothing substantial transpires plot-wise but Beresford maintains interest in the story, mostly by leaning on the emotional disconnect Cunxin feels from having been estranged from his family (he is not allowed to return to China). Beresford gets the emotional gravity right and settles on this pivot for the finale, which – and this isn’t necessarily a bad thing – seems to come along awfully quickly and without a great deal of fanfare. It’s not as cheesy or as rousing as a tissue box send-off like, say, the ending of Mr Holland’s Opus, but this is part of Beresford’s mantra: be glossy and inspirational but don’t overdo it; don’t make the audience cringe. And, in a modest way, the film works.

Mao’s Last Dancer’s Australian theatrical release date: Octob1er 1, 2009

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