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Mao’s Last Dancer

Released: 2009

Genre: Drama

Runtime: 1 hr 57 min

MPAA Rating: PG

Director: Bruce Beresford

Starring: Chi Cao, Joan Chen, Wang Shuang Bao, Amanda Schull, Camilla Vergotis, Chengwu Guo, Huang Wen Bin

Fact-based story of Chinese-American ballet dancer Li Cunxin.

A good view for anyone interested in how a remarkable individual survives great tribulation.

Review by: TimVoon

Added: 7 years ago

If anyone is guessing as to the peculiarity of this title, it refers to a period in China’s turbulent history, during the time of the Cultural Revolution when anything and everything remotely associated with the West was burned, ridiculed and its protagonists imprisoned or demeaned. This, of course, included ballet.

How did something as harmless as ballet get dragged into this tangled mesh of communistic politics?

Essentially, Madam Mao vehemently promoted that anything remotely artistic had to encompass the glory of the Communistic party. Therefore, dancing, singing and plays all had to come under the approval of the Communist Party. Art suffered under this regime, but the spirit of the dancers could never be fully suppressed.

The star of this true biopic is Li Cunxin (played by actor/dancer Chi Cao) who is one of the last generation of ballet dancers trained specifically for this dancing ideal (the ballets were primarily about resistance fighters who overcame the Capitalist forces of China; with dancers dressed in army uniforms and carrying guns). From an impoverished background, he is selected by Communist talent officers to attend the Academy of Arts. Only the best and most flexible students won this privilege and it was considered a privilege to win selection.

In this rigid system of training where teachers are mercilessly strict and discipline is essential to perfecting art, Li learns his craft of dancing. Here he is inspired by secret recordings of Russian dancers and also by a teacher who believes in the beauty of ballet, and not in the propaganda that controlled it.

There is an epic feel to this movie as director Bruce Beresford takes the movie watcher through the life and trials of this remarkable individual, Li Cunxin. The movie seamlessly moves from the poverty stricken villages of China to the Academy Halls of Bei Jing and finally to the Art Stadiums of Houston Texas.

As fortune would have it, the Art Director of the Houston Ballet, Ben Stevenson was allowed to visit China during the early 80’s. It is here that he notices the hidden passion of the dancer that is Li Cunxin. I would have to agree that some of the most memorable and enjoyable moments of this movie ARE the dance scenes. WOW is all I can say, and this is coming from someone who isn’t a big fan of the art. The spins the jumps the turns are amazing. Dancer Chi Cao is amazing as Li, unfortunately I have never seen Li dance in real life, but I hear he was dynamite.

This brings us to the crux of this movie. When Ben Stevenson invites Li to come to performs in Texas, Li not only falls in love with the country, but also with an American girl. This leads to one of the most tense and suspenseful moments when Li is held captive in the Chinese Embassy, until some high levelled US politicians come to his aid – name the senior Bushes of the U.S of A (Barbs was a patron of the Texas ballet). His eventual release and asylum status however comes at an immense and painful cost. Never to be allowed back to the motherland China and prevented from seeing his parents and family again.

The movie has wonderful cinematography, especially some of the scenes from China really depict how special and beautiful this remarkable country truly is. Joan Chen plays Li’s mother in this movie and is wonderfully deglamorised for her impoverished role. I had to look twice before recognising her. Bruce Greenwood flightily portrays Ben Stevenson the artistic director of the Houston ballet, whom I assume was gay although this is not directly implied. Kyle McLachalan’s role as Li’s lawyer is small, although pivotal to his escape to freedom in the US.

As to all those viewers who are wondering what happened to Li after his adventures in the United States. Well he moved to my hometown Melbourne, Australia and is working as a local stockbroker. The first time I heard about Li was a few years ago when I read an article in the paper of an interesting local individual who worked as a broker during the day and performed ballet by night. Since then, Li has written a bestselling biopic novel and now produced a movie. Almost the other the day, I heard from a friend he was sighted walking down the street.

This movie is a good view for anyone interested in how a remarkable individual survives great tribulation to become the best person that they can be. This is the story of Li Cunxin.