Mao’s Last Dancer is a biopic that is actually, a pretty remarkable true story, with a lead actor who is a fantastic dancer. In 1960s China, a young boy name Li Cunxin is taken from his family by the government to attend a rigorous ballet academy. He is then given the opportunity to dance in the West in the early 80s. Li is forced to examine his conscience as he must choose between his career, family, culture, politics and love whilst having to make heart-wrenching decisions of what he must choose to sacrifice and what he must choose to save. Going back to the story, we get to see his journey thorugh his career. At first homesick and weak, Li gradually develops his technique under the tutelage of a kind ballet master. After receiving so much training, I began to wonder if he should he repay his debt by going back to China or should he capitalise on what he has gained and achieve greater personal glory?
Well his real life achievements answered my question as I was watching th film. His triumphant return to China to perform Romeo and Juliet, with his wife Mary McKendry dancing as Juliet, his entire family in the audience, and half a billion Chinese watching on television, is a spine-tingling culmination to his career. It wasn’t always easy for him though as this film documents. As the time approaches for Li to finish his residency and return to China, he balks, seeking legal advice on how he can keep from going back. It is his love for ballet that keeps him going through the emotional turmoil of never getting to see his family again, and his eventual divorce from Elizabeth.
The cast is wonderful! In addition to the lead, he has the advantage of Joan Chen playing his mother, Bruce Greenwood as his American teacher and Kyle MacLachlan as his lawyer. The script explores international politics, domestic trauma, and family bonds. Overall, I liked the film. Director Bruce Beresford went a little too melodramatic, but that’s fine for me. Even if the emotional scenes were a bit too heavy, it’s the dance sequences, choreographed by Graeme Murphy and Janet Vernon, that have an undeniable power. He had almost no chances to pursue a career as a dancer, let alone to have been singled out to go to America to study for a limited period with the Houston Ballet.
Most of it taking place in Houston Texas, location filming in China adds some authenticity to the story. The ambiance of Li’s childhood and adolescence would have been lost without the authentic Chinese landscape that any other location, in any other part of Asia, could likely not provide. This includes the brief appearance of one beautiful steam powered train that caught the ambiance of life there in the early ’70s. Beresford’s movie does paint the United States of America and her people in a very favorable light, pretty much as Li did in his book. So is it unclear if distribution was affected by anti-USA sentiments, objection by the Chinese Government, or whatever, but it is quite suspect. Either way, I urge everyone to see this film, it is essential viewing.