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20.8.10

Out of Frame: 'Mao's Last Dancer'

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Li Cunxin, Mao's Last Dancer
Li Cunxin was a Chinese ballerino who came to the United States in the 1980s, as an exchange student at the academy of the Houston Ballet. He took on some starring roles with the company and chose to remain in America, creating a minor international incident when he was detained at the Chinese consulate in Houston. Although he lost the right to return home to China and see his family, because of the anger of the Chinese government, he went on to become a star at the Australian Ballet and still lives in Australia, working as a stockbroker. During this last phase of his life he wrote a very popular memoir of his life (see him speak in this video interview). It was only a matter of time before this inspirational story was made into a movie, with a screenplay adapted from the book by Jan Sardi (Shine).


Not surprisingly for something directed by Bruce Beresford (Driving Miss Daisy, Black Robe, Breaker Morant), the movie treads a little too close to saccharine at times, soft-pedaling the desperate circumstances of Li's childhood (in Qingdoa, a remote village in northern China) and the hardships of Madame Mao's ballet school in Beijing, where he was taken by the government when he was 10. This is a fair warning to the tearjerker-averse viewer, from someone who loathes feeling his heartstrings pulled by a lachrymose movie, but with the admission that the origins of the story in a real life make the happy outcomes feel more sincere than manipulative. That combination of inspirational story, emotional appeal, and beautifully choreographed ballet scenes means that it is likely that Mao's Last Dancer will join the pantheon of classic ballet movies like The Red Shoes (1948), The Turning Point, and White Nights (perhaps memorable only because of Mikhail Baryshnikov).

The performances are strong where they need to be, beginning with the dancing of Chi Cao (a Birmingham Royal Ballet star in his film debut) as the adult Li Cunxin, although his acting was less than natural, especially some awkwardness trying to approximate various levels of discomfort in English (bettered by briefer appearances by Chengwu Guo and Wen Bin Huang as the teenage and child Li). Bruce Greenwood had an imperious turn as Houston's star choreographer Ben Stevenson, whose interest in Li is at least partially out of a desire to make his troupe the first to tour China. Kyle MacLachlan comes into the film late as the immigration lawyer Charles Foster, who played a part in Li's defection, prompted by his marriage to an American dancer, Elizabeth Mackey (played by Amanda Schull), a marriage that fell apart and is the only part of the story that seems cheated by the screenplay. Li's second wife, Mary McKendry, and also his costar on the stage is played beautifully by Camilla Vergotis (again more for the dancing than the acting), who was at one time a star with the Australian Ballet.


The Chinese scenes viewed in flashback are the strongest, with a particularly affecting part for Su Zhang as Teacher Chan, who struggles to keep the flame of classical ballet alive when Madame Mao's interest is to make a new type of ballet that glorifies the Communist Revolution in China. As expected, he ends up a victim of the cultural purges, but not after he leaves Li a precious gift, a videotape of Baryshnikov, which the students watch in one of the most moving scenes. Without a doubt the most powerful acting performance came from Joan Chen as Li's mother, who has to deal with the heartbreak -- and yet simultaneous joy -- at seeing the sixth of her seven sons taken off to Beijing, followed by being accused by government officials when he stays in America. It was not until somewhere near the end of the film that I even realized it was Joan Chen -- yes, of Twin Peaks and The Last Emperor and (should I even admit knowing this?) The Blood of Heroes. What was clear even in that last, memorably awful future-fi cult film is clear again here, that Joan Chen could act her way even out of the most purple of screenplays.

In Washington, Mao's Last Dancer opens today at area theaters.



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