Bruce Beresford’s presentation of “Mao’s Last Dancer” appears to be all black and white, or perhaps the director wanted to tell a complicated story in a simplistic way. In any case, Beresford ends up with a good film that could have been a great film had he allowed a little more gray to seep through all that black and white.
The story of Li Cunxin is based on the Chinese ballet dancer’s acclaimed autobiography; but how much of his original story remains intact in the film can only be speculated on by those who never read the book.
Three actors play Li at three stages of his life and, although all are good, charismatic Chi Cao is the most convincing as the adult Li — probably because his own dancer’s life mirrored the role. Athletic, charming and capable, Chi as Li is totally believable as the artist who defects to the West. The only stumbling occurs in several romantic scenes where an awkward Chi should’ve played a smoother seducer at that point in Li’s life.
At age 11, Li, the youngest of six brothers in a farming family, is the perfect student. Eager to audition for Madame Mao’s Beijing Dance Academy, he makes the cut then leaves his rural home to study in the city. Once among peers, he realizes that he’s not as good as them until a teacher takes pity and encourages him. After being selected for a cultural exchange program with the Houston Ballet Company, Li experiences an American life he decides he can’t give up even if it means never seeing his family or China again. After appealing to the Chinese embassy, he’s held hostage in a tense scene that drags on too long.
While the film suggests that Li’s dance career could only be satisfying to him in a freedom-loving U.S., there’s a problematic arc between his leaving home to visit Texas then suddenly attempting to claim asylum. Because this happens without us being able to share Li’s innermost thoughts about his life-changing decision, we’re left guessing at exactly what point he started developing a political agenda.
Did Li’s sense of Chinese censorship stem from the time a Party official chastised his troupe for performing a piece he considered too bourgeois? Since that happened early in the film, it’s hard to recall as the impetus.
Perhaps it was the material trappings that Li’s host, Ben Stevenson (Bruce Greenwood), plied him with upon his arrival in America that influenced him to flee China. Or, maybe it’s the white women. Most likely forbidden to him in China, in the U.S. Li marries one, divorces her, then gets involved with another.
Of course, the dancing is extraordinary throughout, but some of the best scenes are when Li’s just hanging out — like when he goes to the theater to watch kung fu movies and is visibly entertained.
And, there’s Joan Chen playing Li’s mother, Niang, as the one strong dissenting voice. As usual, her performance is powerful. Believable in any role, Chen is especially authentic playing an angry mother telling off Party leaders.
Unfortunately, this story unravels in shades of good and bad. The unyielding Communist Party is bad. American freedom is good. The Chinese embassy and its arrogant ambassador are bad. The heroic ballet dancer and his supporters—including George Bush, Sr. and wife Barbara — are good. And, so on.
What’s missing are overlapping gray edges that would’ve added a richness, although the ambiguity of what inspired Li’s monumental decision is about as gray as it can get.
Opens August 20 at Landmark’s Seven Gables, AMC Pacific Place and Lincoln Square.