Li Cunxin, Mao's Last Dancer
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 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.