Mao's Last Dancer

Green lightLike most a-star-is-born biopics Bruce Beresford’s Mao’s Last Dancer affectionately charters the protagonist’s journey from an undiscovered hopeful to a celebrated artist – in this case from Chinese ballet prodigy Li Cunxin’s upbringing in rural China to his acclaimed dance career in America.  And like most films about dancers it accentuates – consciously or not – the sheer physical stagnancy of the movie-going experience, the audience inadvertently made to feel like blogs of lard fixed to a seat. We watch, in between bites of a choc top, swigs of coke and fistfuls of popcorn a lifetime of exercise, hard work and body-flailing condensed into two hours of triumph over adversity, practice makes perfect, dreams becoming reality and all that inspirational stuff that happens, or could happen, or (let’s face it) could happen but probably won’t when you’re somewhere other than a darkened auditorium watching another person’s success story.

Mao’s Last Dancer made me feel so lazy I went to the gym for a workout afterwards. More disconcertingly it also made me want to slip on some tights and shake my caboose, and anyone who sees me getting jiggy with it are likely to realise – after collecting their jaw from the floor and decreeing that there is no god – that my style is, shall we say, not ballet, but then again Li Cunxin probably doesn’t write film reviews so, um, each to their own. One can always fall back on the infallible logic of Douglas Adams’s infinite probability drive: somewhere, right now, someone just like Li Cunxin is watching a movie about a petulant blogger who cracks the big time. Or, if not the big time, at least gets a couple of random comments on his post. But I digress.

With Mao’s Last Dancer Beresford has made an uplifting film told with little bling or flair, a glossy but not over-celebratory treatment that feels believable enough but exists in that shiny alternate cinematic universe where real life tangents either fit neatly into the necessary rhythms required for interesting storytelling or are stuffed in regardless – either way it’s the same for audiences unfamiliar with the true life story and can’t distinguish between what loosely happened and what is pure fantasy and folly, which is just about everyone. The plot (based on Cunxin’s best-selling memoir) plays out like Billy Elliott crossed with Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story: Cunxin (Chi Cao) comes to the U.S. because of his prodigy-like dancing abilities and is seduced by the American way of life, digging his heels in by finding a girlfriend, chowing into greasy food, generating nods of approval from his teachers and standing ovations from his audiences and generally accruing the sort of vaguely self-indulgent lifestyle impermissible in the Chinese motherland.

Cunxin gets his big break when the star of the Houston ballet cops an injury a few hours before show time and Cunxin, as a last minute replacement, must learn the part in three hours, which paves the way for a very cinematic series of trailer-friendly lines i.e. “three hours! That’s impossible!”“No, he can do it! He’s aaammazzingg!” etcetera. The story gets some friction when Cunxin decides to disobey China’s wishes and stay in America, and when he announces to his Chinese brethren his pending marriage to girlfriend, that’s when the fit hits the shan.

Beresford uses Cunxin’s coming-to-America story as the film’s anchor and incorporates via flashback his life as a young boy and teenager in China, selected for greatness by the po-faced powers that be. Beresford’s approach feels too burnished and contrived for the film to resonate as much more than a watery-eyed tribute to an undeniably talented person with a genuinely interesting (even without the cinematic makeover) life story, but though a shade underwhelming it’s well handled, elegantly told and doesn’t outstay its welcome. Past the point at which Cunxin defects to the U.S. – illustrated via an entertaining standoff scene at the Chinese embassy, with Kyle MacLachlan as a calm-under-fire Southern attorney and god dang, it’s good to see Kyle MacLachlan even if, after all these years, he still can’t shirk that eerie Lynchian vibe – nothing substantial transpires plot-wise but Beresford maintains interest in the story, mostly by leaning on the emotional disconnect Cunxin feels from having been estranged from his family (he is not allowed to return to China). Beresford gets the emotional gravity right and settles on this pivot for the finale, which – and this isn’t necessarily a bad thing – seems to come along awfully quickly and without a great deal of fanfare. It’s not as cheesy or as rousing as a tissue box send-off like, say, the ending of Mr Holland’s Opus, but this is part of Beresford’s mantra: be glossy and inspirational but don’t overdo it; don’t make the audience cringe. And, in a modest way, the film works.

Mao’s Last Dancer’s Australian theatrical release date: Octob1er 1, 2009

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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