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Mao's Last Dancer

The title of Bruce Beresford’s film biography isn’t really evocative of anything in particular, even if it is the same as the autobiography on which it’s based. Li Cunxin (Chi Cao), the Chinese-born ballet dancer whose story is the subject of both, was arbitrarily pulled from his isolated rural life and made a student in Communist China’s Beijing ballet program during the last years of Mao Tse Tung’s rule. He was eventually sent off to study with the Houston Ballet, but that scarcely made him the dictator’s “last dancer.” The title also implies a stronger, more coherent political thrust than the film delivers. For the most part, it presents Mr. Li’s story as a personal saga of great gifts developed by great will, and through singular circumstances, over grave individual and social obstacles. Mao’s Last Dancer doesn’t ignore political contexts, but its emphasis is on the inspirational and on emotionally satisfying scenes.

Presumably echoing Mr. Li’s book—a bestseller in Australia, where the dancer now lives—Beresford and writer Jan Sardi follow his story from his life in a severely impoverished village in the early 1970s through his painful (sometimes literally) experiences in the ballet school to his revelatory encounters with dance and life in the States. The early scenes are the most striking; the oppressive control of the Party on education and art is sympathetically and skillfully depicted. Eventually, as Mr. Li gets to the States and has to confront wrenching decisions, the film progressively loses its focus and texture and acquires a flatter, more cursory quality. Details and even characters are treated carelessly. And, most crucially, the filmmakers never really provide much of a portrayal of, or insight into, the unusual young man at the film’s center. Chi, a professional dancer, is reasonably effective with what he’s given to work with, but the vibrant Joan Chen is largely wasted in the small role of his peasant mother. As is Kyle MacLachlan as a Houston lawyer who aids Li.

Mao’s Last Dancer settles for superficial, sentiment-driven drama and posturing.

—george sax

Watch the trailer for Mao's Last Dancer

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