Thursday, October 20, 2011

Mao's Last Dancer - It Could Have Been A Contender

I was very interested in seeing the film Mao's Last Dancer (2010) after seeing an interview with the dancer himself, Li Cunxin.  The movie is based on his autobiography of the same name about his childhood in rural China, being selected to attend Madame Mao's Beijing Dance Academy, and his defection to the United States in 1981. Li was very compelling and charming in the interview and his story had tremendous potential to be a great film.

My first clue that it wasn't the film it should have been was when it didn't stay in theaters very long. Also being a ballet fan, I know that films about the ballet world tend to be somewhat melodramatic. So it was with some doubt that I decided to see the DVD at last a few weekends ago. 

The most successful part of this film are the scenes filmed in China, with what I understand from "the making of" documentary several non-actors.  The performances from all are compelling, especially Wen  Bin Huang who plays Li as a child.  At 11 years of age Li is literally plucked from his family to go to ballet school in Beijing. The family knows this is an opportunity of a lifetime, though it means not seeing him again. We get wonderful scenes of the school and the young dancers growing up. There are also great scenes of Li with his teachers.  

We also learn of the heavy hand of the communist regime, and especially the school's patron, Madame Mao. (She was Chairman Mao's last wife and played a major role in the Cultural Revolution.)   One redeeming quality of the film is that the story is told partially in flashbacks, so through much of the film we get the good scenes from China.  

But once our dancer Li comes to the United States as an exchange student with the Houston Ballet the film becomes a "movie of the week"  from the Lifetime channel.  The poor young man, now played by dancer Chi Cao,  has to play all the stereotypes of the naive foreigner just off the boat in the United States. From this moment on the film seems to lose any connection with the real story and the real man. The amateur performances by the professional actors are sometimes laughable. How sad that a story with such potential, and with noted director Bruce Beresford should fail in so many ways. 

Chengwu Guo as Li

In addition to the scenes filmed in China, the ballet scenes that are interspersed throughout the film are worth watching.  We see Li (played at different ages by dancers Chengwu Guo and Chi Cao) dancing Swan Lake, the heroic communist ballet's of the Cultural Revolution, and modern classical choreography in the U.S. with the Houston Ballet. 

Li enjoys the artistic freedoms he experiences with the Houston Ballet and falls in love with an American dancer.  When he requests to stay longer in the U.S. his request is denied. That leads to a standoff  inside the Chinese Consulate by Li, his sponsors in the ballet, and his American lawyer with the Chinese diplomats.  He has to then make a decision that will affect his personal and professional life forever. 

In conclusion I would advise skip the film and read the book. I  haven't read Li Cunxin's autobiography yet, but I'm positive it is better than the film. In all honesty I can't say I hated the film, I'm disappointed that a great true story about the triumph of the human spirit was made into such a mediocre film. 

The real Li Cunxin

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