Fox // 2009 // 117 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge Roman Martel (Retired) // May 25th, 2011
Before you can fly you have to be free.
As director Bruce Beresford says during an interview included on this DVD, we've all heard the rags to riches story before. What makes Mao's Last Dancer worth your time and attention?
Once Li Cunxin (Chi Cao) was selected by Madame Mao's cultural team to be part of the dancing academy in Beijing, his life was forever changed. Only 11 at the time of his selection, he is taken from his rural village and immersed in a world of physical and mental training. Li embraces this life, pushing himself further and further. Now as a young man he is selected as special representative to visit Houston, Texas in an exchange program.
Before he leaves, he is briefed that he is representing his country and its ideals. He must do everything in his power to show the West what true hard work and skill can accomplish. He is also warned to avoid the decadence of the West, especially its women. And since it is the late 1970s, there's a lot of decadence to be found.
At the Houston Ballet he falls under the watchful eyes of Ben Stevenson (Bruce Greenwood) who sees Li's raw talent and skill. He becomes convinced that Li is a star in the making. When Li performs a dance number from Don Quixote, he nearly brings the house down. Stevenson tries to convince the Chinese consulate to extend Li's time, but they refuse, afraid that exposure to Western life may have tainted their dancer.
They may have a good reason to be nervous. Li has fallen for Liz Macky (Amanda Schull). In addition, he feels something he never felt before, a freedom that actually adds to his dancing ability and drive. Li is prepared to stay in Houston, but it's not going to be easy. His friends bring lawyer Charles Foster (Kyle MacLachlan) to figure out a way to help Li. But how far will the Chinese consulate go to keep Mao's Last Dancer?
When it's presented well, even a familiar story can be involving. Writer Jan Sardi has some experience adapting the inspirational story. He wrote the screenplay for Shine. Cunxin's autobiography presents plenty of events and adversity to turn into a film. It's Beresford's direction, the well-chosen cast, and the excellent dancing and music that makes the whole thing work.
The main bulk of the story follows Cunxin as he arrives in Houston and experiences a world altogether new to him. Certain events will trigger memories to surface and we learn more about his life in China through various flashbacks. The flashbacks do a good job of building and adding to Cunxin's experiences in Houston and allow us to understand why he reacts the way he does.
His dedication and devotion to dancing and improving his skills are what drives him. Life at the Academy in Beijing was hard, but it allowed him to hone his talents and build his strength. It's the oppressive nature of the political climate that stifles him. When we see him dancing in a politically charged ballet, we can appreciate his skill and movement. But compared to the fire he displays when he dances during the Don Quixote sequence, it's almost like there's a different man up there.
That is the reason he really wants to stay. Yes, he falls for Liz, and she for him, and that ends up providing a key to him staying in Houston. But the movie makes it clear that the freedom is the siren song here. It is Cunxin's decent nature that brings his whole plan under threat by the Chinese consulate. The final third of the film deals with that dangerous situation and the repercussions afterward.
The cast does a great job. You get three different actors playing Cunxin at various ages, and all of them are convincing. Cao has the most difficult part dealing with the emotional challenges as well as the most demanding dance sequences. Joan Chen plays his mother during the flashback scenes and provides the anchor for Cunxin in his most troubled times. Greenwood and MacLachlan get to work with a Texas accent and add a bit of color to their roles.
Beresford and his international crew shot on location in China and Houston and do an excellent job of bringing the settings to life. They also keep the period detail present, but never oppressively obvious. It was amusing to see Cunxin deal with an early '80s era disco, but most of the time the fashions and cars are more subtle in their appearance. Beresford also uses different film techniques for his scenes. The flashbacks in China have a gritty look, like an older film stock was used. The scenes in Houston look a bit more polished, but lack vivid colors. Those are saved for the dancing sequences, where production design goes into overdrive.
I'm not the biggest fan of watching dancing for extended periods of time, but I have to say that the ballet shown here is impressive. The sequences vary in length and include various styles: Communist Chinese Propaganda, Swan Lake, Don Quixote and The Rite of Spring. Each one is filmed with an eye to capturing the performance but never feeling stagy or locked down. It adds to the excitement of the scenes, something that is a bit of a lost art these days. Aside from the dancing scenes you also get a wonderful musical score by Christopher Gordon who makes great use of Asian instruments.
Fox provided a screener copy, but the image and sound were both very good for a standard DVD. The flashbacks are almost completely in Mandarin, and are subtitled clearly. You get a 20 minute behind the scenes documentary. It provides interviews with the cast and crew, and covers most elements of the production in the short amount of time.
As well made as it is, Mao's Last Dancer is still very familiar. Those looking for cutting edge storytelling will not be satisfied here. While the dancing scenes are vital to the film, they are on the long side, so those with no patience for that type of thing will get bored.
This is a well made film with an engaging story. Add in the wonderful dancing and musical score and you've got a solid dramatic winner.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 117 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Rated PG