By Barbara Nonas
Mao’s Last Dancer is based on Li Cunxin’s eponymous best-selling autobiography, which recounts the remarkable true story of a poverty-stricken little boy from rural China who goes on to become an international ballet star.
At first I was a bit resistant to the film– the dialogue is often corny, and the political differences between East and West are portrayed very simplistically. Mao’s China is a severe and bleak place; even the scenes shot in China have a grainy, dated look. When Li comes to the U.S. for the first time from China, he arrives in Houston, Texas, and suddenly the graininess disappears. Houston (the United States) is shown as a place of fancy shopping malls, elegant apartments, and ATM machines.
But once the dancing started, almost despite myself, the film hooked me in. When the adult Li performs, he literally soars through the air. It’s thrilling to watch, even if you don’t know anything about dance. It helps that Chi Cao, the Chinese actor who portrays the adult Li, is currently a principal with the Birmingham Royal Ballet and an extremely gifted dancer. Guo Chengwu, who plays the teenaged Li, is a real-life Beijing Academy graduate and also an excellent dancer.
The film was created by award-winning talent. Directed by veteran Bruce Beresford (an Oscar nominee for Tender Mercies, his film, Driving Miss Daisy, won the Academy Award for Best Film in 1990), the movie was produced and written by the team behind the film Shine. Bruce Greenwood (Dinner for Schmucks, Star Trek, The Sweet Hereafter) gives a delightfully appealing performance as Ben Stevenson, the artistic director of the Houston Ballet and the person who discovers Li. He delivers some of the best lines in the movie. Kyle MacLachlan (Desperate Housewives, Sex and the City) is well-cast as Charles Foster, a no-nonsense attorney.
During the last hour of the film I became thoroughly engrossed, traveling along with Li on his emotion-packed journey. I had fallen under the spell. By the time the climactic final scenes of the movie were rolling, I was crying, along with most of the audience, and I left the theater inspired by Li’s triumphant story.
A Roadshow Films and Hopscotch Films release of a Great Scott production. English, Mandarin dialogue