MAO’S LAST DANCER: The Film Babble Blog Review

MAO’S LAST DANCER
(Dir. Bruce Beresford, 2009)

The true story of ballet dancer Li Cunxin is told in this flashback laden melodrama. In the opening we’re introduced to Chi Cao who plays Cunxin as a young man in 1981 arriving at the Houston airport, wearing a suit sporting a Chairman Mao head-pin.

Cao is greeted by a slightly flamboyant Bruce Greenwood as Ben Stevenson – an American ballet director who discovered the dancer on a trip to China.

As Greenwood welcomes Cao to his home for a 3 month stay while he attends the Houston Ballet School, Cao has many heavy handed memories of his poverty plagued upbringing in China where his education seemed to be only an enforcing of the principles of Communism.

Cao meets Amanda Schull as a fellow student and love interest who he keeps secret from Greenwood for reasons never stated out loud.

After a plea to extend his stay in America is rejected, Cao marries Schull to obtain the legal right to remain (and also for love he says), but the Consulate General of the People’s Republic of China in Houston (Ferdinand Hoang) has other ideas.

Hoang has his men detain Cao and tells his lawyer – nicely played by Kyle MacLachlan * with a thick Southern drawl – that Cao is going back to China.

This heated sequence is one of the few involving ones in this overlong biopic that’s drably filmed and too simplistic and predictable in its plotting.

It has its heart in the right place and it’s unmistakably earnest, but it’s too corny and condescending to be the inspirational feel good movie it so wants to be. It’s something that would perhaps be better as a “Hallmark Hall Of Fame” movie of the week than a theatrical release.

For those who enjoy ballet, the movie most comes alive in its uninhibited dance scenes though those are filmed in unimaginative long, or too close, shots that diminish any potential power.

It’s a history lesson about Chinese Communism, it’s a drama about a dancer’s ambition, it’s a love story, and it’s a bit of a political passion play. Ultimately though, its standardized simplification of all these strands makes for an unsatisfying experience.

* Joan Chen who was a fellow cast-member with McLachlan on Twin Peaks also appears as Li Cunxin’s mother Niang.

More later…

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