Mao's Last Dancer
Samuel Goldwyn Films
Now Showing at: Mariemont Theatre
Review by: Larry Thomas
If you are involved at all in the arts, you already know that life can be hard for those who choose performance as their profession. But it can be even more difficult under a Communist regime, which makes all decisions for you for the good of the party. Such is the case in Mao's Last Dancer, an Australian film from director Bruce Beresford.
Beresford was at the forefront of the Australian filmmaking renaissance of the early eighties with his worldwide hit Breaker Morant. He was nominated for a directing Oscar for Tender Mercies, in which he guided Robert Duvall to his Best Actor Oscar. And he also helmed the Best Picture winner Driving Miss Daisy. Now he turns his attention to this true story of a young Chinese boy, Li Cunxin, chosen by the government to leave his home and study dance in Beijing. Chi Cao, whose parents were teachers at the Beijing Academy, plays the adult Li. He trained there, and at the Royal Ballet. Not only an adept dancer, Chi does well as an actor, taking advantage of having the talented Beresford around to teach him Moviemaking 101. Members of professional ballet companies, which give the dance sequences added authenticity, act all the roles of dancers. The film uses familiar ballets, such as “Giselle,” “Swan Lake,” and “The Firebird” so as to make the art accessible to those who may not be familiar with ballet in general.
The dramatic conflict arises when Li is allowed to go to Houston to be a resident guest artist with the Houston Ballet. Given a taste of both artistic and personal freedom in the west, Li must make hard choices on behalf of his art, his future, and his family in China. But, as we all know, in order to make an inspiring, uplifting film, hard choices need to be made.
Mao's Last Dancer is not a perfect film. The script by Oscar-nominated writer Jan Sardi has more than one role that veers into caricature rather than character. It does suffer from some scattershot pacing, over-the-top acting, and a couple of scenes in which the emotions are overwrought, although the heartfelt finale is genuine, and illustrates the importance of good teachers.
There are some familiar faces in the cast. Canadian Bruce Greenwood plays the artistic director of the Houston Ballet, and Li’s mentor in the US. Joan Chen is Li’s mother, and as usual does a fine job. Chen’s cast mate from the TV series Twin Peaks, Kyle MacLachlan, is a Texas immigration lawyer, and noted Australian thespian Jack Thompson has a cameo as a judge. None of these performances are anything special, as the “special” part is reserved for the dance sequences. Some are truly breathtaking and a joy to watch.
If you have a child, or other young relative, with an interest in the arts, be it ballet, music, acting, or whatever, this is the perfect film for you to see together. The history, political, and artistic threads will make for great discussions, while the story can be… here’s that word again… inspiring. These days that’s a difficult commodity to find in a film that is suitable for both adults and young people.
The PG-rated Mao's Last Dancer is now showing at the Mariemont Theatre.