'Mao's Last Dancer': Film Review

Directed by: Bruce Beresford, Runtime: 117 min
Grade: B-

A tale of a stranger in a strange land comingles with an uplifting sports drama in Mao's Last Dancer, Australian director Bruce Beresford's steady-handed adaptation of Li Cunxin's autobiographical novel of the same name. It tells the story of a young boy who's pulled from a poor former's life to train to become a ballet dancer amid the Chinese Cultural Revolution, where, burdened by the Communist principles ingrained through his rigorous training, he eventually travels to America to perform with the Houston Ballet Company. He learns about the grand candor of American culture and economy and falls in love with someone he can barely speak with, while building a deeper appreciation for his art -- and himself. It's a triumphant story we've heard and seen many times over on-screen, but Beresford's direction elevates the true story above its rickety inspiration mechanics with an unremarkable but approachable eye for sentiment.

The depiction of the boy's life is told, at first, through converging narratives that occur in the '70s and beginning portion of the '80s, with three carefully-selected actors/performers playing each point in his life. Shots of Li (Chi Cao) peering upon skyscrapers and learning about muffins in the kitchen of his sponsor/company bigwig Ben Stevenson (Bruce Greenwood) contrast against his initial selection and physical training in the dusty outskirts of China, roughly five or six years prior, captured in Peter James' coarse photography for an earthen, vintage poise. We see Li struggle from a young age to compete with bigger and stronger boys, unable to do necessary splits without diligent practice in his teens (and guidance from an authority) -- which, as expected, slips into a somewhat customary glimpse at his training. Watching both stories come together shapes his mentality through his preparation and emerging fondness for American values, which proves a decent enough foundation for when the Chinese government forcibly pulls him back to his homeland in a moderately-scaled diplomatic tiff.

Since Mao's Last Dancer roots in Li Cunxin's true story, it's not that difficult to offer a little slack to the overt, proverbial tone of encouragement in The Notebook writer Jane Sardi's adaptation. We witness a doe-eyed foreigner -- finely played by Chi Cao as the oldest version of Li -- navigating through the freedom that's alien to him in his home country, learning about consumerism, love, and independence as he marvels at a shopping mall and watches people dance without restraint in a nightclub. His journey mixes with sweeping shots of his youngest self coasting through the Chinese countryside, with background narration telling an anecdotal story about a nature-driven compulsion to explore the world and branch off from what one knows. Scenes like these focus on evident emotional push not without exaggerated heartstring-plucking to paint Li's journey with overt dramatic strokes, which water down the rousing story's innate allure with unadventurous biopic trappings.

Bruce Beresford's direction still tightens the stale writing into a reserved but well-composed depiction studded with low-key beauty in the suitably-shot ballet choreography, opting for a cozy stream of drama to propel Li Cunxin's story between performances and bulkier dramatic bumps. The Driving Miss Daisy director implements his off-and-on aware grasp on interpersonal chemistry while structuring the crucial relationships Li develops, creating a slate of confidants and muses that alter the dancer's poise -- both in melancholy and inspirational ways -- while he falls for principal partner Elizabeth and adamantly works to defect to the United States. The dramaturgy never peaks above serviceable, though, lukewarmly emphasizing the defining moments in the dancer's life as it clanks towards the rigid diplomatic chessboard of the final act, even as Kyle Maclachlan enters the picture as Charles Foster, an international law attorney with ties to China. There's a level of polish in Beresford's orchestration of the past and present that paints an ample arc out of the dancer's oppression, though, even while dodging more poignant opportunities for depth in bringing Li's story to the screen.

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