Mao's Last Dancer

Starring: Chi Cao,  Joan Chen, Wang Shuang Bao, Amanda Schull, Camilla Vergotis, Chengwu Guo, and Huang Wen Bin. Directed by Bruce Beresford.
Rated PG (infrequent mild violence and coarse language). 117 min.

The distinguished Australian Director, Bruce Beresford, who gave us “Breaker Morant” (1980), “Driving Miss Daisy” (voted Best Picture in 1989),  and “Tender Mercies” (1983), brings Li Cunxin’s prize-winning autobiography compellingly to the screen. The film tells an inspirational and true story of the discovery of a prodigious talent in an 11 yrs. old boy, Li (played as a child by Huang Wen Bin), destined to become of the great dancers of the world. Almost by chance, and upon a seemingly casual gesture of a sympathetic teacher, Li is selected from a village school in the Shandong Province of China by recruiters from Madame Mao’s ballet academy in Beijing. On the hunt for talent to demonstrate the worth of the Cultural Revolution, they failed to foresee Li’s passion for freedom, as well as for dance, that led him to dramatically defect to the West in 1981, while performing on a short-term cultural scholarship with the Houston Ballet in the US. Li, brilliantly played in the film as an adult by Chi Cao, danced with the Houston Ballet for many years, before joining other ballet companies for a period of time, including the Australian Ballet.

The film, which follows the book reasonably closely, portrays the story of Li at three levels. The first is an exposé of the poverty that characterized the existence of Li and his family in rural China. The second is the dramatic development of Li’s will and determination to succeed, and his choice to push his body to the limit to become one of the best dancers China has ever produced. The third is the psychological and ideological capture of the conflicts that beset Li, as he struggled with his passions for dance and freedom against loyalty to his family back home. The film is a powerful and personal statement of how far a person can go when a decision to realize one’s potentialities in life is made. Li’s childhood was full of love and affection, and his parents (played by Joan Chen, and Wang Shuang Bao) convey very well the sacrifices they made for their son, and the inspiring values and sense of integrity they gave him.

The real force of the film, however, comes more from the magic of dance than from Li’s journey from poverty to fame. The film exposes us through flashbacks to Li’s poverty as a boy, and the drama builds up pace with the defection scenes involving Li’s first wife, Elizabeth (Amanda Schull), and Li’s later marriage to his second wife and dance partner, Australian Mary McKendry (Camilla Vergotis).  The dance sequences choreographed by Australia’s Graeme Murphy and Janet Vernon, and involving members of the Australian Ballet and the Sydney Dance Company, are superb. They are captured beautifully by the film’s cinematographer, Peter Jones, who makes excellent use of slow motion in his camera work, and Beresford powerfully uses audience-reaction to Chi Cao’s dancing to capture the artistry that unfolds. The performances of Cao, who is Principal Dancer with the Birmingham Royal Ballet, manage to achieve extraordinary emotional impact.

Ballet fans will love this film. Wider audience response, however, is virtually guaranteed by the fact that Li’s dramatic story is well told. Chenwung Guo, who plays the teenage Li in the film, now dances with the Australian Ballet, and Li himself works as a stockbroker and motivational speaker in Australia, and lives in Melbourne with his wife, and their three children. Mary gave up her dance career to look after one of their children, who was born profoundly deaf. 

This is a film that will hugely entertain. Its philosophical and cultural underpinnings provide edifying moral messages, and the movie is a welcome return of Bruce Beresford to Australian cinema.

Roadshow Hopscotch Films Out October 1, 2009

Peter W. Sheehan is associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.

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