Mao's Last Dancer -- Film Review


Bottom Line: Feel-good movie about a Chinese dancer presses all the right buttons.

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TORONTO -- Veteran Australian director Bruce Beresford's new film, "Mao's Last Dancer," feels almost like a remake of the equally heart-warming "Billy Elliot," but this time around, what the aspiring, "Rocky"-like, against-all-odds dancer is escaping is not working-class ignorance and poverty, but hardline Chinese communist officials.

Like most films in this underdog genre, the emotional manipulation of the audience is constant and obvious. Beresford, the director of "Breaker Morant" and "Driving Miss Daisy" (which won four Oscars, including best picture), knows exactly what he is doing at every moment, and most viewers will be more than happy to go along for the ride.

Distributors and programmers who are looking for a film that will move audiences, rather than deeply probe the meaning of life, should give "Mao's Last Dancer" a serious look. This is the kind of film that critics may look down on but go on to win audience awards at festivals (and, presumably, make money at the box office).

The film is adapted from the autobiography of Li Cunxin, a peasant child in the wilds of rural China who, at age 11, is plucked out of a one-room schoolhouse to attend Madame Mao's dance school in Beijing. He ends up with the Houston Ballet Company as part of a cultural exchange program, and a few mildly humorous scenes of culture shock follow. Once he has tasted the liberty -- and the good life -- of America, however, the new star doesn't want to return.

A dramatic scene in the middle of the movie shows Chinese officials literally trying to kidnap him to send him home, but legal maneuvering and his quick marriage to an American dancer keep him in the U.S. When the media is set loose on the case, the Chinese government finally backs down and lets him stay. However, to achieve his dream, he has had to give up the chance of ever seeing his family again, a thought that torments him no end. Though ambition trumps family at this point in his life, it will be pretty clear for most viewers what the final scene of the film, which takes places some years later, is going to be.

Like most films in this genre, pretty much everything is seen in black and white terms. Thus, despite the fact that the horribleness of America has been drummed into him by Chinese propagandists since childhood (in scenes that are presumably meant to provoke laughter in knowing Western audiences), he finds on visiting that in fact, everything in America is "fantastic," as he constantly puts it, and everything in China -- except for his family -- is very, very bad. He says he even dances better in America, because here he is "free."

The film's most complex character is actually Ben Stevenson (Canadian actor Bruce Greenwood shines in this crucial role), the director of the Houston Ballet Company who sets everything in motion and keeps it going. It is his own mixed emotions and sometimes calculating self-interest that provides whatever depth the story contains. The real center of the film, though, is the dancing itself, of which we happily get a lot.

Venue: Toronto International Film Festival
Production company: Last Dancer Pty Ltd.
Cast: Bruce Greenwood, Kyle MacLachlan, Joan Chen, Chi Cao, Amanda Schull.
Director: Bruce Beresford
Screenwriter: Jan Sardi, based on the autobiography by Li Cunxin
Producer: Jane Scott
Director of photography: Peter James
Production designer: Herbert Pinter
Music: Christopher Gordon
Editor: Mark Warner
Sales: Celluloid Dreams
Unrated. 117 minutes