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JapanFocus
Mao's Last Dancer
Directed by Bruce Beresford (2009)
Howard Schumann (howard16)     Print Article 
Published 2010-05-12 19:20 (KST)   
Howard Schumann rates "Mao's Last Dancer" a C.  <Editor's Note>
Based on the 2003 autobiography of the same name by Li Cunxin, Bruce Beresford's Mao's Last Dancer is the story of a Chinese ballet dancer whose special talent is only matched by his courage and determination to live in freedom. The film opens in Qingdao province in rural China where Li is raised by a peasant family, living with many brothers and impoverished parents Niang (Joan Chen) and Dia (Wang Shuangbao). At age 11 his life is altered forever when he is selected by a group of visiting inspectors to go to Beijing to train as a ballet dancer at Madame Mao's Dance Academy. At first passing Li by and walking out of the classroom, the inspectors are brought back by the class teacher who taps the last comrade on the shoulder and points to Li saying, "what about that boy?"

In Beijing, the young Li, admirably performed by Wen Bin Huang as a child and Chengwu Guo as a teenager, faces a harsh training routine from 5.30 am to 9 pm, 6 days a week, but is supported by a gentle old teacher Chan (Zhang Su). His determination is so strong that, to build his leg strength, he hops one legged up and down stairs with heavy sandbags tied to his ankles at 5:00 each morning. Conflict soon arises, however, when a stern Madame Mao insists that the dances emphasize politics and guns and director Chan becomes a casualty of this rigid doctrinaire approach.

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Though gradually developing his skills, Li does not adapt well emotionally to being away from his family and cries himself to sleep. Eventually, however, he hones his skills and develops enough emotional maturity to be sent to the United States to dance for the Houston Ballet, becoming one of the first two cultural exchange students allowed to go to America to study under Mao's regime. Chi Cao from the Birmingham Royal Ballet plays the adult Li who is nurtured in Houston by British-born dance director Ben Stevenson (Bruce Greenwood) to become a star dancer. He learns to appreciate the freedom in America, and falls in love with dancer Elizabeth Mackey (Amanda Schull), a relationship marred by dialogue reminiscent of "As the World Turns" and a laughably melodramatic scene where the distraught girl throws herself into bed.

The transition to capitalism is filled with all the usual cliches -- jaw dropping amazement at Disco Dancing, ATMs, and shopping malls, quite a contrast we are repeatedly told with his poor peasant village. Unable to have his stay extended by the Chinese authorities, Li decides to marry Elizabeth and announces his intention to defect to America, causing an incident that takes 21 hours to resolve after Li is held hostage in the Chinese Embassy. Only after negotiations at the highest level are concluded is it determined that Li can stay in America but is forbidden to return to China, or to see his parents. It is a powerful sequence and kudos must go to Kyle MacLachlan who delivers a strong performance as Charles Foster, the attorney representing Li during his detention at the Chinese consulate.

Produced by Jane Scott and written by Jan Sardi, "Mao's Last Dancer" is an inspiring story of determination, courage, and love complete with excellent dance sequences choreographed by Graeme Murphy. Unfortunately however, under Beresford's direction, the film is filled with one-dimensional characters, over-simplified politics, and TV-style cliches. The differences between the brutes of Communist China and the freedom-loving Americans are drilled into us so often and with such heavy-handedness that we begin to question their authenticity, especially since none of America's social, economic, or cultural problems are even mentioned. Although "Mao's Last Dancer" has some genuinely moving moments, it is mostly a slick and superficial affair, lacking in a core of emotional truth.
©2010 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Howard Schumann

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