Based on the extraordinary true story and memoirs by Li Cunxin, who, from the Shandong Province in China, was plucked at the age of 10 from his poverty stricken small village school to train to be a dancer in Beijing. Enduring the strict discipline of the Academy of Dance and suffering the heartache of separation from his family, Li ultimately seizes the gift of his incredible opportunity with determination to succeed. He was later offered to study with one of the top ballet companies in the world, the Houston Ballet in America. Li’s fate could so easily have been the anguish of an individual who vanished, like millions of other peasants living amidst the chaos of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, but there was to be another and more thrilling destiny for Li. One day he would have to make an agonising choice between duty and freedom. One day he would be regarded as one of the greatest ballet dancers of his time. One day he would be a friend to a president and first lady, movie stars and the most influential people in America. One day he would become a star: Mao’s last dancer and the darling of East and West.
There is a cracking story in Li Cunxin, the talented ballet dancer from a remote peasant village in China whose defection to the West in 1981 sparked a media and diplomatic storm in the US and caused him great personal pain.
Alas, Mao’s Last Dancer, the film based on Li’s 2003 biography, is a fairly dry, conventional account of what could have been a dramatically-charged, emotional and thrilling tale. The film had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, where it was the runner-up for the Audience Award.
To be frank, it fails to reach great heights due to Bruce Beresford’s stodgy, uninspired direction and the curious way the plot is structured by screenwriter Jan Sardi. The slowly-unfolding narrative doesn’t kick into gear until more than an hour in, when Li is kidnapped by staff at the Chinese consulate in Houston, Texas, and told he’ll be forcibly returned to China.
Way too much time is spent establishing Li’s early life as one of seven sons (his family called him 'Son No. 6") in a dirt-poor village in Qingdao, from where he was plucked at age 11 to study at Madame Mao's Beijing Dance Academy. The harsh daily regime of training and being indoctrinated in the virtues of Communism and the evils of capitalism are laboriously depicted.
'I don’t like ballet"¦don’t understand it," he mutters. But inspired by videos of Baryshnikov and a kindly teacher, Li learns to love ballet and to perfect his craft. At 18, he was awarded one of the first cultural scholarships to go to the US as an exchange student for three months, and taken under the wing of Ben Stevenson (Bruce Greenwood), artistic director of the Houston Ballet.
His initial time in the US is portrayed as a typical fish-out-of-water scenario as he gazes in awe at skyscrapers and comes to grips with ATM machines and kitchen appliances. The lead-up to his defection finally generates some dramatic momentum as Li becomes the centre of a diplomatic tug-of-war. Kyle MacLachlan has a small but pivotal role as Charles Foster, the attorney who represented Li.
His ill-fated romance with fellow dancer Elizabeth (Amanda Schull) offers scope for some emotional connection but it isn’t explored in much depth by Sardi and Beresford. Li’s subsequent relationship with Australian ballerina Mary McKendry (Camilla Vergotis) also seems under-written.
To be fair, the acting is generally excellent, and the casting of three actors to play Li is virtually seamless. Chi Cao, the principal dancer at the Birmingham Royal Ballet, is convincing as the adult Li, with Guo Chengwu (a real-life Beijing Academy graduate and member of the Australian Ballet) as his teenage self and Huang Wen Bin as little Li. Joan Chen and Wang Shuang Bao are fine as his parents.
The dance sequences, brilliantly choreographed by Graeme Murphy and photographed by Peter James, are a highlight and will no doubt delight ballet lovers. It’s just a shame the human aspects of the story don’t match the exhilaration and beauty of the dancing.