From The Parallax Review Vaults: Mao’s Last Dancer (2009)

The following review originally was written for The Parallax Review, a film review site of which I was the co-founder and managing editor. I have decided to collect the writings I did for The Parallax Review and preserve them here. I will be posting a few of these older pieces every week. My review of Mao’s Last Dancer was for the “In Theatres” section of The Parallax Review.

by Matt Wedge, Managing Editor

If good intentions always produced good movies, I would never have to write a negative review. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Mao’s Last Dancer shows how a unique, powerful story can be nearly ruined when buried under a heaping mound of schmaltz and heavy-handed political messages. What should have been an inspiring film about hard-won personal triumph is turned into a simplistic message movie about the absolute evils of communist China and the glorious freedoms of the United States.

The film tells the true story of Cunxin Li (played as a child by Wen Bin Huang, a teenager by Chengwu Guo, and an adult by Chi Cao), a talented ballet dancer who defected from China to the United States in 1981. It begins with his disorienting introduction to America via Ben Stevenson (Bruce Greenwood, employing a distractingly flamboyant accent), the director of the Houston ballet. Li, only twenty-years-old, has been brought to Houston to be the face of Chinese ballet. The Chinese government expects him to show Chinese superiority in the world of ballet, while avoiding the temptations of American capitalism. The story expands on Li’s background through extended flashbacks that show his impoverished childhood in rural China and his tough schooling and training after he has been picked by the government to become a ballet dancer. After just a few months in America, Li falls in love with a local aspiring ballerina (Amanda Schull). Realizing that everything he has been told about America by the Chinese government is a lie, Li marries his girlfriend in an attempt to stay in the United States. This leads to a tense political standoff that threatens not only Li’s life, but also his family that he is leaving behind in China.

Li’s story is fascinating and obviously the stuff of great drama. Unfortunately, director Bruce Beresford is unable to get out of the way and just allow the story to unfold. He insists on painting everything in shades of black and white. With the exception of Li’s parents and a ballet teacher, all the Chinese characters he encounters are cold, unemotional robots who exist only to spew communist propaganda. Nearly all of the Americans he meets are warm, friendly souls who welcome him with open arms. It makes what should be a painfully difficult decision (giving up one’s homeland with the very real possibility that family left behind may be punished) seem like a no-brainer.

Even worse, Beresford glosses over the few uncomfortable moments Li encounters. When a stranger slings a racial slur Li’s way, Ben lies to him about its meaning, turning the word into a compliment. The scene is played as though Ben is doing Li a kindness, when I was appalled that this man, who is supposed to be his friend, is just as guilty of lying to him as the Chinese officials who told him that capitalist countries have no sunlight. Likewise, I couldn’t get past Beresford’s condemnation of a government-sanctioned Chinese ballet portraying the communist revolution. He offers up the criticism that it lacks subtlety and should therefore be mocked. To me, that irony was so thick I could nearly taste it.

The film does find a more complex tone once the standoff at the Chinese Consulate occurs. In his few scenes as Li’s lawyer, Kyle MacLachlan shines as a no-nonsense pragmatist who cares only about his client, politics be damned. Likewise, the aftermath of these scenes are unique in that they finally allow a degree of shading to the film. Li’s life becomes messy as people he previously trusted, reveal a petty, selfish side and the dark competitiveness at the heart of the professional ballet world is touched upon.

While the film is largely sabotaged by Beresford’s and writer Jan Sardi’s one-note take on the material, it comes to life in the ballet sequences. As an actor, Chi Cao is adequate, but the ballet scenes reveal why he was cast. He’s a graceful, athletic presence and manages to exude the confidence and exhilaration that Li feels when on stage.

There is nothing more frustrating than coming across a movie that squanders great potential. Mao’s Last Dancer is that kind of movie. Still, even with the political preaching and uneven performances, Beresford and company cannot completely destroy the powerfully emotional climax to the film. It’s a reminder of what the film should be: one man’s difficult journey to take control of his own life and learn who he really is. That is a universal theme that does not require the blunt political criticisms and maudlin melodrama ladled on by the filmmakers.

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