Mao's Last Dancer: Movie Review
Cast: Chi Cao, Bruce Greenwood, Kyle McLachlan, Joan Chen
Director: Bruce Beresford
Based on a memoir by Li Cunxin, Mao's Last Dancer is set in 1970s America and
is the true story of Cunxin's journey from the poverty of China to the opulence
of the West - via stardom.
Told in flashback and starting with Cunxin's youth, it shows the horrors of
living under the Mao regime in China. Li's plucked from a poor school and thrust
into a dance academy where he trains as an apprentice.
However, Li's also given the chance to go on tour - despite concerns from the
communist leaders - and ends up in Houston. Initially he struggles with the
creative - and personal - freedom on show but ends up accepting the lifestyle
and becomes a star.
But things get complicated when Li decides he wants to stay in America - and
the Chinese government foists exile on him when he makes the wrong decision (as
far as they're concerned.)
Mao's Last Dancer is a perfectly fine - if slightly pedestrian - biopic; the
ballet scenes are well done and showcase brilliantly the moves of Chi Cao.
Unfortunately though, it suffers from a couple of slightly ropey performances
from its lead actor - he's not quite strong enough to pull off the role and at
times, it seems a little amateur dramatics; clearly he was chosen for his
incredible ballet skills rather than acting. Plus throw in some quite corny
dialogue here and there, and it's not much of a recipe for success.
That said, Bruce Greenwood (as the director of the theatre company) and Kyle
MacLachlan (as Li's attorney) are solid and provide decent support; but the real
star of Beresford's film is his recreation of communist China in the 70s.
It's horrifying, repugnant and shows exactly why the regime was so detested -
and thanks to Beresford's restraint in not exploiting it, it feels real. In one
of Li's nightmares, he sees his family paraded and shot - it's so wonderfully
underplayed and evocative that it's an image which resonates long after the
Ultimately Mao's Last Dancer aims for inspirational and sadly falls a little
short - while it's a well intentioned true story, it doesn't soar as much on the
screen as perhaps it should have done.