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.
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.