Forgotten Gem: Mao’s Last Dancer

Mao’s Last Dancer – 2009

Directed by Bruce Beresford

Starring Cin Cao, Bruce Greenwood, Joan Chen, Kyle MacClachlan, Wang Shuangbao, Amanda Schull, Ferdinand Hoang

Written by Jan Sardi, based on the autobiography by Li Cunxin

There’s a point early in Mao’s Last Dancer when young Li Cunxin, is missing home badly.  He’s been selected from his small village in the Shandong Province to train in dance in the Chinese Capital Beijing.  It’s been a rough go of it to start with, and he is in his bed, in the middle of the night, crying.  After a stern upbraiding of the group by a school ward, he is asked by his group to not cry.  When he explains why he is crying, the other boys regard him gently, saying that they, too, miss their home.  One of the boys tells the others that he has a remedy for the situation.  Wasting no time, he releases a loud bilabial fricative, causing uproarious laughter.

This is the kindness that is the overriding theme of Mao’s Last Dancer.  IT shows, that even in a land and culture so vastly different from our own, goodness can thrive.  Li Cunxin is the paragon of innocence early this movie based upon his autobiography.  His introduction to America – he is literally walking off the plane as the credits roll — is effectively countered with scenes from his early childhood through young adulthood.  We get to see him picked up out of obscurity, through the recommendation of a teacher. Then, after some tests of his physical flexibility, his family is interviewed by representatives from the state to verify loyalty, and sent on to the capital.

Meanwhile, in the U.S., he encounters a culture shock we have seen times before, but rarely as effectively.  He is not afraid, per se.  He is just ignorant.  Getting some advice from the local Chinese Consulate, he is reminded of some of the fearful ideas he’d been taught as a child.  This keeps him humble for a time, but the human mind unbound can only ignore the obvious for so long.  No one in America is set to corrupt him, however.  There is a goodness that pervades the dancers he works with here, too.  Fundamental decency is a common theme in Li’s life.

There are drawbacks, of course.  Not everyone in mainland China is as interested in Mao’s Revolution as they are in the art of dancing.  These are subtly handled, but not missed by Li.  He knows what is happening, and why.  Well, not entirely why, perhaps.  One of the people affected by this is one of Li’s most influential teachers.  The effect on his performance is noticed when a troupe from the U.S. first arrives.  All but one, perhaps two, of the dancers are seen more as athletes than artists.  Cunxin is noticed by his future instructor Ben Stevenson (an almost unrecognizable, but incredibly effective Greenwood).  Stevenson convinces the Chinese Government to send him to be an exchange student, under his watch.

Within the six weeks he is there, he is thrust into the spotlight of the Houston Ballet, and falls in love with his eventual first wife, Elizabeth.  He shares with her the simple truth that, given the political nature of dance in China, he prefers to dance in the U.S.  Here, he says to her, the dancing makes him feel free.  From here, he sees a lawyer Charles Foster played with smooth efficiency by MacLachlan, who reveals to him his options.  Here he takes the step of marrying his girlfriend.  The development of their relationship is presented naturally and quite realistically.  For a PG movie, the courtship is shown to be as passionate as his dancing.

Upon revealing his intentions to the Consulate, he is immediately detained.  Form there, the Foster and Judge Woodrow Seals work locally and then Vice President G.H.W. Bush secure his freedom.  The freedom, of course, comes at the threat of ever seeing his family again.  His family, meanwhile, is subjected to threats and ridicule, and worse, to his imagination.

The performances in Mao’s Last Dancer are all fair to good.  Most exceptional are Chen, Cao and Greenwood.  Greenwood, an exceptional character actor usually playing straight supporting roles, excels as Stevenson,  the erudite leader of the Houston Ballet, whose brainchild it was for Li to expand his dancing horizons, while not necessarily encouraging his rebellion.

As a dancer in the Royal Birmingham Ballet, Cao has not done much acting, but his role demands more of a dancer than an actor.  His passion is revealed through movement in dance as well as the movement of his eyes.  His depth of passion not taken lightly onstage and off.

Chen, playing Li’s mother, is remarkable.  Such is her soul, that when ridiculed by the government for her son’s chosen exile, she strikes back with one of the most memorable scenes in the film.

“How can you blame me?” she demands to know, “If anyone is at fault, you are the responsible ones!  Now you have lost my son! I should make you pay.  Go and find my son!  Bring him back to me!  Find him and bring him home!”

Beresford does a remarkable job here letting his people act as most people would: decently and with concern for the well-being of others.  His coverage of the dancing is exceptional, most significantly that of the Rites of Spring. In stark contrast to the dancing portrayed as an assault on the senses and soul that is Black Swan, this movie reveals that even in parts of the world where the politics may darken the human experience, artistic expression can bloom from the soul.

(****1/2 out of *****)

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