Thursday, May 20, 2010

Film Review: Mao's Last Dancer

Writer: Jan Sardi; based on an autobiography by Li Cunxin
Director: Bruce Beresford
Producer: Jane Scott
Cast: Chi Cao, Bruce Greenwood, Kyle MacLachlan, Joan Chen, Wang Shuangbao, Amanda Schull, Ferdinand Hoang
Drama, based on a true story
1 hour 57 minutes
English, Mandarin Chinese with English subtitles

China has always been an enigma to the west. Most of the anti-communist paranoia after World War II focused on Russia. Less was made of China because they were perceived as a minor superpower. Now they are ascendant and may soon dominate the international scene. The U.S. meanwhile is only able to maintain its position with loans from China.

China is a paradox. So too is our view of them. They are criticized for their determined approach to matters such as sports, yet there's no denying their success. Likewise, we may criticize their approach to the arts but it works, as we saw in the incomparable opening and closing ceremonies to the 2008 Olympics. Bruce Beresford's latest film Mao's Last Dancer looks at China's approach to the arts in telling the true story of Li Cunxin, who was trained in the old communist system and then forsook it to defect to the west.

The story begins in the middle with Li Cunxin (well-acted by Birmingham Royal Ballet principal dancer Chi Chao) arriving in Houston as part of a cultural exchange. We then see how Li is picked from a poor Shandong village by Chinese officials to be sent off for dance training in Beijing. There he struggles to keep up with the others, and gets inculcated with Communist Party propaganda.

He also lucks into finding a mentor who inspires confidence in him, but then sees him carted away for not toeing the party line. A visiting artistic director Ben Stevenson (Bruce Greenwood) takes notice of him and paves the way for the artistic exchange.

Mao's Last Dancer is a rousing feel-good movie in the order of Billy Elliot or Rocky. That's both its strength and its weakness. The script was by Jan Sardi, who previously took a "true" story and made it false with the deplorably clichéd and phony Shine. Here he does a good job of tying together Li's life, but there are a number of false moments particularly around the training sequences. If Li was really so weak, he never would have been selected in the first place. But that's there to make him more of an underdog.

I do like that we have one of the rare films with an Asian male lead that doesn't make too much of that. It does deal however momentarily with Li's experiences of racism and it shows him having romances with *gasp* white women. The acting is solid, especially with Bruce Greenwood doing outstanding work as usual. Chi Chao does well for his first acting role, but has the ungrateful task of faking a stronger Chinese accent than he actually has. Still, he pulls it off. And his dancing is superb.

Mao's Last Dancer was the runner-up to Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire for the Audience Award at the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival, but in my estimation it is a far superior film and probably should have won.

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