Film review – Mao’s Last Dancer (2009)

adult Li Cunxin (Chi Cao)
adult Li Cunxin (Chi Cao)

Li Cunxin was born into a very poor peasant family who lived in a rural Chinese province during Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution. In 1972 a team of visiting inspectors selected him to accompany them to Beijing to train as a ballet dancer at Madame Mao’s Dance Academy. Despite not seeming to initially have the necessary qualities that are required to become a great dancer, Li eventually honed his skills with such dedication and discipline that he was sent to the United States to dance for the Houston Ballet. Li, who has since moved to Australia, wrote the very popular and acclaimed autobiography Mao’s Last Dancer in 2003, which has now been adapted into a film by Australian director Bruce Beresford (Black Robe, ‘Breaker’ Morant, The Getting of Wisdom). Unfortunately, despite all its potential, the film version of Mao’s Last Dancer is a very pedestrian affair that is only redeemed by its very powerful conclusion.

The biggest problem with Mao’s Last Dancer is that the contrasting in Li’s autobiography about his life in Communist China compared to his life in Texas during the 1980s, comes across incredibly bluntly in the film. What may have originally been a series of considered personal observations translates cinematically into the sensation of somebody screaming at you, “China equals poor! America equals wealthy! Communism is bad and oppressive! Democracy is good and free!” Hence, Li is repeatedly depicted looking dumbfounded at the wonders of American life while the Chinese officials are all suitably villenous. The representation of ideology in Mao’s Last Dancer is incredibly shallow and crude. The exploration of racial and cultural differences are also very clichéd and reducing Li’s early dialogue to pigeon-English is simply embarrassing.

teenage Li Cunxin (Chengwu Guo)
teenage Li Cunxin (Chengwu Guo)

Mao’s Last Dancer suffers in general from poor plotting and direction to the extent that many scenes resemble daytime soap operas. There is even one moment when a character throws themselves onto a bed in melodramatic anguish. The acting is overall not bad considering the limitations of the adaptation and it is always refreshing to see underrated actors Bruce Greenwood and Kyle MacLachlan on the big screen. Chi Cao, who is a trained ballet dancer, plays the adult Li Cunxin. However, although the heavy use of slow motion and various editing techniques in Mao’s Last Dancer want to give you the impression that you are witnessing great dancing; you are not. Unlike the performances in classic ballet films such as The Red Shoes and the more recent 2003 Robert Altman film The Company, the dancing in Mao’s Last Dancer is only adequate.

Yet despite all its very large flaws Mao’s Last Dancer does end on a triumphant note. The film has two big emotionally cathartic ‘final’ scenes and although you can see the heart-string-tugging mechanics of these scenes a mile off, they are executed brilliantly. Mao’s Last Dancer is a very good example of why you should never leave a film early because to do so in this instance would be to miss 20 minutes of truly impressive filmmaking. If only everything that preceded it wasn’t so mediocre.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2009

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  1. Ah damn Thomas, worst fears realised with this one it seems. I’ll probably still give it a go but the ‘soap opera’ feel puts me off, much in the same way as Memoirs of a Geisha.

  2. I’d love to hear what you think David so drop by again once you’ve seen it. I suspect that many people will actually like it because I think it will appeal to certain people. However, I am puzzled by the praise that the dancing has been getting. I was really underwhelmed by most of it, although Chi Cao is clearly very talented. I’m not a dance expert but at the screening I went to I was sitting next to a critic who writes for a ballet magazine and he also thought it was nothing special so I’m not completely alone.

  3. With all the hype this film’s been getting, I expected to be in for a real treat. Not so. Choppy scenes, melodramatic scenarios, underdeveloped characters and sub-plots left me disappointed.

    Elizabeth, Li Cunxin’s wife, for example, was a grossly underdeveloped character (who was after all, the reason for Li Cunxin’s defection} and we hardly heard a word from Mary ( Cunxin’s new prima ballerina and future wife) who featured with him in the most of the supposedly heart tugging scenes.

    The bloke with the mustache (I forgot his name) and the old American shelia did not serve the development of the plot at all. The film could have been made without them, and would have been no less for it. As for master Chen. Where did he come from? A few lines and a few tears, and he was gone, until the end.

    There were seven people in the session I attended. And at the end of the movie, there was not a tear to be seen…

  4. Thanks for sharing your thoughts Alex. I have to say that I really can’t argue with you as all your points about the underdeveloped characters (especially the two wives) are spot on. This was a really disappointing film. Maybe I’ve been too kind to it by giving it as high a rating as I did.

  5. My biggest disappointment came with the treatment of the actual dance-performance sequences.
    For example, the Huston Die Fledermaus ballet was indifferently lit: no side lighting to accentuate the dancers’ bodies; black tights against a dark background; and the editing, even though is was not of the cut-every-two-or three-seconds variety, nonetheless had me antagonized. There is an adage in filming boxing scenes, that as soon as you cut away from the boxers in the ring to onlookers, fans, coach, girlfriend, etc., the tension, drive and dramatic force is dissipated. Stay on the match and it will be riveting. But here we cut from the dance to the audience, to the TV set, to the girlfriend watching at home, from long-shot, medium, close-up, and back to the cutaways all over again.
    Why not have the confidence to simply stay with the dancers and let us see for ourselves how wonderful they are? All this manufactured “excitement” is simply distracting. And frustrating: we see so little of the dancers.
    I could go on…

  6. Hi Roberto – I couldn’t agree with you more.

    For me filming dancing is like filming action sequences – as soon as you start to resort to quick edits and cut-aways, you destroy the impact of watching skilled bodies in motion. However, quick edits and cut-aways are usually used to disguise the fact that the performers aren’t actually up to scratch! I love your expression “manufactured excitement”.

    Thank you for providing such a detailed visual analysis of this film – you really know your stuff!


  7. Hi Thomas, expected as much, just the gut feeling I got reading about it, of course it would favor capitalism and make communism the big baddie. This was also directed by an Australian? Of course he’s not going to understand the sensitivities of the cultural divide. An excellent example of an Australian production that got this divide right is Home Song Stories. Great comparison with The Red Shoes too, the way this film is marketed – dance as a form of artistic expression, you should expect something beautiful and meaningful. Shame about the soap-opera feel also, will give this one a wide berth.

  8. Hi Kwenton. I don’t actually mind that the film came down hard on Communist China under Mao but I just really disliked how crude, simplistic and repetitive it was in its representation. Mao’s Last Dancer is directed by Bruce Beresford, who is an Australian, and he also directed, among other things, ‘Breaker’ Morant, which is one of my all time favourite Australian films. Beresford is fundamentally a good director but he has a few duds and this is one of them. However, I’m not sure why you would think that an Australian wouldn’t understand the sensitivities of the cultural divide. I actually think Australians are very well qualified to explore cultural differences, considering the diversity of experiences within Australia compared to many other parts of the world.

  9. It may surprise you, Thomas, that I really liked this film a lot. Maybe it helped that I knew almost nothing about it and had seen none of the trailers or promotional material. I think these might have ruined it for me. The film is unashamedly mainstream and I don’t have a problem with that. I thought the blend of politics, history, social, cultural and family elements were all a very good blend.

    It is melodramatic at times, but I didn’t think it overdid it and I could go with it. I’m no fan of ballet but I found the dancing entwined within the story both exhilirating and beautiful. After Samson and Delilah, I find this the next best local film of the year and it wouldn’t surprise me if it gets top gong at the AFIs. It really moved me.

    BTW, I don’t think the film ‘came down hard on Communist China’. I found it very authentic and, if anything, underplayed.

  10. Glad to hear you liked it Paul and thanks for providing an alternative critique. I’m got no problem with a film being mainstream and as I said in my review I really liked the final 20 minutes. I would also like to mention that I actually saw Mao’s Last Dancer in late August (a little over a month ago) so I hadn’t been exposed to any marketing and came into the film with no preconceptions whatsoever.

  11. There are people who go for the emotional pay-off without much thought (probably those who’ve read the book) But I kept trying to put it all together. For me the pay-off was not matched by what preceded it; it seemed disingenuous.

    *** CINEMA AUTOPSY EDIT – Spoiler alert ***

    Li Cunxin was a heartless opportunist. Firstly, he marries Elizabeth because he wants to stay in America, which would mean he’d never be allowed back to China to visit his parents. Secondly, he leaves her because he wants to advance his career. He didn’t even put up a fight! When his parents arrived for the big performance, Li’s emotional response was over the top. If he’d struggled; if he’d gone back to China, risking all just to see his parents before they died, then the pay-off would have been earned. But it wasn’t. Nor was the second pay-off when he visited ‘master’ Chan who we hardly got to know at all! This was so contrived, I felt like laughing.

  12. Yeah, the ending was contrived and disingenuous but I am a bit of a sucker for sentimentality so I was won over by the end. I’m not proud of that though!

  13. I’d probably give this an extra half a star or maybe more Thomas. Like you I felt more than a bit manipulated by the end but I’m a bit of a sucker for these types of films too and got swept up in its lightweight dramatics against my better judgment!!
    Cao was surprisingly good considering his lack of experience in front of a camera and I’ve always liked Bruce Greenwood (beginning with his Nowhere Man days!) – but I’ve never seen him like this!! ;)

  14. Another Bruce Greenwood fan who remembers Nowhere Man? Is it possible? I reckon his best role is in Exotica, which is one of my favourite films from the 1990s.

  15. I don’t care what any of you knockers say. I saw the movie 2 days ago, I went with two friends,another oldie and a youngie. Without knowing anything about technical correctness, we all loved it. Yes, we even shed at tear. We thought it massive appeal and have already recommended the film to several friends and family.

  16. Hi E

    I’m pleased to hear that you and several others have enjoyed Mao’s Last Dancer so much. Judging by the incredible business it is doing, you are certainly not the only ones. It’s good to see an Australian film doing so well.

    I’m not really a ‘knocker’ you know, I’m just providing a critical reading of the film as I see it. I actually prefer it when I have more positive things to say.


    PS The expression ‘knockers’ always makes me think of something from a Benny Hill sketch.

  17. It’s not a perfet film but it is certainly a tribute to the power of the human spirit.

    Li still helps his family in China and he couldn’t have done that if he had returne

    So stop being so critical.

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