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(3.5 STARS) Great Ballet Sequences and Clichéd Storytelling
on February 1, 2011
Australian biopic "Mao's Last Dancer" is based on the autobiography of former Chinese-Australian ballet dancer Li Cunxin. Born in mainland China, Li Cunxin was sent from his impoverished village when he was 11 years old as a hopeful candidate for the Beijing Dance Academy. It was the time of Chairman Mao and "Gang of Four." He passes the test, and later joins the Huston ballet company as an exchange student. In America, now a young dancer hoping for the future, Li Cunxin has to make a decision that will change his life forever.
"Mao's Last Dancer," directed by Bruce Beresford ("Driving Miss Daisy" "Tender Mercies"), shares the central theme with another coming-of-age tale "Billy Elliot," but the Australian film is also about the protagonist's conflict between the two different cultures against the backdrop of the changing political climate in China. The script by Jan Sardi ("Shine" "The Notebook") tries to show the young boy's emotional growth by using several episodes in the academy, but what really happened, I suspect, is something less melodramatic than is depicted here. Perhaps we should read the book.
I am no expert, but the ballet dancing scenes are beautiful, strong and convincing (in spite of unnecessary use of occasional slow motions). Chi Cao, principal of the Birmingham Royal Ballet in real life, plays the adult Li Cunxin. He is obviously no professional actor, but he shows what he can do on the stage. Unfortunately, Li's romance (very important even in his life, as it turns) is not very interesting, even emotionally vapid, despite the best efforts from Chi Cao and Amanda Schull (Center Stage).
Bruce Greenwood ("Star Trek" "Thirteen Days") plays Ben Stevenson, artistic director of Houston Ballet. Kyle MacLachlan ("Desperate Housewives") appears as Li's attorney Charles Forster, but his role (though second-billed) is more like an extended cameo. Joan Chen plays Li Cunxin's mother Niang; Wang Shuang Bao plays his father Dia. Also, the cast includes Jack Thompson in the blink-and-you-will-miss-it cameo.
The film certainly has a good story to tell, which is nearly ruined by clichéd storytelling. "Mao's Last Dancer" captures the beauty and elegance of ballet dancing, but as to the protagonist's emotions, it does almost.