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Mao's last Dancer tells the true story of Chinese ballet dancer Li
Cunxin who grew up in rural poverty in Mao's communist before being
given the opportunity to dance in the West in the early 80s. Li is
forced to examine his conscience as he must choose between his career,
family, culture, politics and love whilst having to make
heart-wrenching decisions of what he must choose to sacrifice and what
he must choose to save.
Li Cunxin is played magnificently by Chi Cao (as an adult) as well as Chengwu Guo (as a teenager). Chi Cao, a highly recognised ballerino in his own right, must receive the bulk of the accolades for what is truly a seamless breakthrough performance by a first time actor. The rest of the cast are also fantastic including Bruce Greenwood who plays the difficult and complex part of a slightly camp Ballet Director who must confront his own values.
Kyle MacLachlan ("Sex and the City") takes a relatively brief but delightfully forceful turn as a Houston lawyer and Australians will delight in the cameo by the ever wonderful Jack Thompson.
As an Australian production I was extraordinarily proud. Bruce Beresford has produced arguably his finest picture to date (and yes, I've seen "Driving Miss Daisy") as the pacing, musical score, use of ballet on camera and story structure were all pitch perfect. The film jumps around between 80s USA and Li's Chinese upbringing at the beginning before settling into a groove during the middle and end. And just when the film could be in danger of straining it's audience Beresford delivers moments of levity and humour that remind us of the characters' humanity.
The backdrop of politics against which the film plays is neither ignored nor focused on. Had it gone one way or the other, the film wouldn't have worked nearly so well but Beresford dealt with this delicate theme with such craftsmanship that it never becomes an issue for the audience.
Jan Sardi (who also wrote Shine and the Notebook) has also produced a highly commendable script for what must have been a daunting project - given the success of the book the movie is based on.
At 132 minutes, the film is long and this can be felt slightly in the middle. However, the fault is only minor and I defy any viewer to watch this without being moved by Li's story.
Many who have read Li's memoirs (as I have) will be anxious to know whether the movie does the book justice. I'm overjoyed to say that it does. I openly wept several times in the film as did most of the audience members around me. There were a few subplots and parts of the novel left out but I found that, unusually, this didn't bother me as much as it normally does with movies based on true stories.
This is because the film told the essence of Li's story extraordinarily well in this irresistibly moving telling of one man's struggle as he's caught between two cultures at a time of when they were pushing against each other.
This year's Slumdog Millionaire upstart is Mao's Last Dancer.
To be honest, I've never actually finished Li's book. I had the vague
idea its about a boy from my hometown that went on to become one of the
best ballet dancers, but then, being a Chinese immigrant myself, I'm
not particularly pleased with people 'cashing in' on their stories.
After all, his story, in fact, was of particular interests to
westerners because of the clashes of cultural identities between two
worlds, which i and many thousands if not millions more overseas
Chinese experience everyday. But after watching the movie, I have to
say I loved it. The directing truly captured the struggle of a man torn
apart between what 'ought to do' and what 'should do'.
I was born in Qingdao, China.So the connection between me and Li's story is very strong. Mr. Li is just about my parent's generation, so in a way, I can see his struggle in my own world, everyday. Qingdao is never short of artistic talent, to many, artistic talent is the only way out. 'There's no national boundaries in art', my parents used to tell me. When I was five my parents bought me my first piano, which cost them an entire year's savings, but it was seen as a valuable investment, 'art will pave the way to success', they used to say. Like my classmates in the piano class, I used to rise up 5 in the morning and practice until its time to go to school, only to come home then stay practicing until 10. Going to Beijing and to study in one of the national music academy would be many of my fellow classmate's dream. I can feel the pride Li's parents had when he went to America, I can also feel the pain he felt when he decided to stay in America. To Li and many others, to become what he was when he went to Beijing would be everything anyone could ever wanted. What more can he hope to achieve? He could've been the best ballet teacher in China, with fame and fortune to boot, but he threw all that away because of love and freedom. I don't believe it was because of money or fame, it was simply a choice made in a heartbeat by a young man who believes in himself.Was it selfish? I don't know. I'm confronted with this question everyday while I'm in Australia, to many Chinese and spectators, Li's action is selfish indeed, abandoning his duties, his parents and his place in the society pursuing freedom and love in a westerner's world. But the longer I stayed in western world, the harder I ponder that question, what is duty? and more importantly, what is a son's duty to his parents? to his nation? The value system is obviously very different back then, Li, who's seeking individual happiness didn't fit into a collective society like China. But, he also had the fortune to be plucked, trained and nurtured to become what he was. Should he repay his 'debt' by going back to China? or should he capitalise on what he has gained and achieve greater personal glory? It's easy to answer for anyone in a particular value group, but for Li and many Chinese overseas, it can be a life-long dilemma. After all, Li's fortunate enough to be sitting comfortably somewhere in Australia writing his book, many buried talents are somewhere in a dusted corner in China tutoring next generations of wannabe talents. But his fortune also comes from perseverance and handwork, from a heart to pursue what he truly believes in. To that end, the movie tells a brilliant story of a brave young man.
My husband and I went to see this movie yesterday and thought the
acting was great from relatively unknown, at least to us, actors. I had
some idea of what the movie was about prior to going to see it but it
was even better than my expectations, and the lead actor was a truly
magnificent dancer, as were the others.
The story was moving with a few humorous moments, and showed how disciplined a person must be in order to become a great dancer. I have to say it has been my experience that people generally leave before the credits but, like myself, they stayed, which says something for the acting and the movie itself.
I would recommend this movie to everyone, even those who are not fans of ballet.
This cineaste and balletomane had given up many years ago any hope of ever seeing the dance rendered adequately on film. Enter Bruce Beresford. I suppose every ladies' book club in the English-speaking world has read Mao's Last Dancer, so if you wanted to make a film based on that autobiography, you'd first have to find a brave director. Well, this is it. Linking together life in desolate inner China and a sophisticated western world has been done before. But there is an emotional story here, and the casting agencies deserve enormous credit for finding such competent people. I mean, do you find an actor and teach him to dance, or do you get a dancer to act? Whatever; the lead in this film can dance very well indeed, and his acting is more than competent. I won't retell the story. Just let it be said, that at the performance I saw, most of the audience sat through the credits. Those who left early looked mystifed by the applause. A ladies' book club cum chick flick? I think not. Sure, the tissues were out, but this is one surely exciting film.
Bruce Beresford is one veteran Australian director who can produce
popular films, and this one is definitely a crowd-pleaser, at least for
the crowd that likes to watch dance. The story itself (naïve young
dancer from totalitarian regime defects to the freedom of the West) is
pretty hackneyed but is framed by some exquisite dancing scenes. My
former Red Guard colleague "Robin" thought that the protagonist Li
Cunxin was a bit of a goose, for, given his extraordinary talent, if he
had gone back to China he would have reached the top of the dance
establishment. Instead, seduced by the shopping malls and high rise of
Houston as well as by a young American dancer, and outraged when he
discovers the Party has lied to him about America, he defects, causing
a minor diplomatic incident and cutting himself off for the time being
at least from his family. Still, he was only 18 at the time.
The two actors portraying Li, Chengwu Gao as a boy and Chi Cao as an 18 year old, do excellent work, given that neither is a professional. In fact all the Chinese actors were terrific. The American / Australian support cast was OK (Jack Thomson reprising his good ole legal boy act, Kyle Maclachlan playing a straight role), though I found Bruce Greenwood as the Houston Dance Company director Ben Stevenson mildly irritating. One does see his point, however, about most of the Chinese dancers being athletes rather than artists. There were some sloppy aspects. Some of the Houston scenes were filmed in Balmain, Sydney, green street signs and all, which by no stretch of the imagination looks anything like anywhere in Houston. Yet Beresford filmed in Houston, and went to considerable trouble to film in China. The Qintao village scenes are beautifully composed and the very last scene shows how Beresford must have convinced suspicious local party officials that he was making a movie they could approve of. I guess he didn't show them the scenes with the Madam Maolike character chucking her weight about.
It's not mentioned in the film, but it's well known that when Li's dance career came to an end he re-trained as a stockbroker, an unlikely "happy ever after" scenario. He now lives in Melbourne. Beresford and Jan Sardi based the script on Li's own best-selling memoir and there's no doubt they have added something, if only some great ballet scenes the extract from Stravinsky's "Firebird was fabulous.
Diane and I saw this excellent movie at Paradiso in Northbridge two days ago and we both were entranced by the beauty and sensitivity of Mao's Last Dancer. I admit that I was none too anxious about seeing this film about dancing but after the opening scenes in rural China and a quick cut to Li Cunxin and early dance years and I had become a total fan of the movie. Beresford's direction married to the acting and dancing ability of Chi Cao result in a movie about dance but that theme is only the canvas upon which this moving and quite dramatic story unfolds. The resulting movie is far, far more complex than I thought as I entered the theatre. Yes, of course, the ballet sequences are glorious to watch but this film, as I said, is not just about dancing. The script explores international politics, domestic trauma, family bonds, interpersonal tension and these are only my random memories. At the start of the film, I could not believe that so many hugely dramatic instances could flow from the life of a young man born into less than salubrious circumstances in rural China. There are many different scenes; Beresford edited the film in fast sequences and the total is amazingly complicated; I am in awe of such a complex life so richly lived. Put Mao's Last Dancer on your must-see list!
In a village of China, the eleven year-old Li Cunxin is selected by the
Comunist Party to study ballet at the Madame Mao's Dance Academy in
Beijing. Years later, he travels to Houston in a cultural exchange
program invited by the artistic director Ben Stevenson (Bruce
Greenwood) and he is promoted to principal dancer of the Houston
Ballet. Meanwhile he secretly dates and falls in love with the dancer
Elizabeth Mackey (Amanda Schull).
When the China's government asks Li Cunxin (Chi Cao) to return to his country, he marries Liz and defects to USA. He is forbidden to return to China and has no news of his parents and family. Meanwhile, his marriage with Liz ends and he misses his parents. But five years later, he has a great surprise during a performance.
"Mao's Last Dancer" is a film about the true story of the Chinese ballet dancer Li Cunxin. The engaging biography of Li Cunxin is an example of discipline and strength associated with courage to make the right decisions, and it is amazing how a boy from a poor village in China could have become a great ballerino in the West.
Bruce Greenwood, Kyle MacLachlan and Joan Chen are well known actors and are fantastic, but Chi Cao, Chengwu Guo and the rest of the cast and dancers have also top-notch performances. Everything is perfect in this film, from the direction of Bruce Beresford to the cinematography and art direction. My vote is ten.
Title (Brazil): "O Último Bailarino de Mao" ("The Last Ballerino of Mao")
A charming, stirring, visually and emotionally stirring film. The best I've thus far seen in '10. The story of a mainland Chinese 11 year old boy,supposedly forever indoctrinated by daily school- taught commie propaganda garbage,is chosen to attend a special school to be trained for ballet. He does well and in due time, is sent to the USA to the Houston Ballet Company. Then and there he awakens to not only his manhood but to the realization that all he's been taught about the "glory of Chairman Mao's communist revolution, was the furthest thing from the truth. Not only is the lead a wonderful danseur but his acting ability could win him a Best Actor nomination as well. A film NOT TO BE MISSED.
Mao's Last Dancer is a brilliantly made movie, thanks to the flawless direction of Bruce Beresford. I had not even heard of this film until I saw a local ad for it. I also didn't know about the book. I watched this movie with eyes wide open! The dancing blew me away, and yes, I have to admit, I cried several times. The story of Li Cunxin is amazing. He is played magnificently by Chi Cao (as an adult), who, I understand, is a well known Chinese dancer in his own right. Bruce Greenwood, which I like very much, plays the role of the Houston Ballet Director with absolute perfection. Several reviews have included the plot of the film, so I'm not going to get into here. I only want to stress to everyone who has not seen this movie, don't miss it!!! And bring a box of hankies...
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Never having read the book, and only vaguely knowing the story from the
trailer, I went into Mao's with a clean slate. This was for the best I
believe. Other than the major moment in Li's life his refusal to
leave America I was unaware of what was to come and as such felt the
full effect of every emotional twist and turn that Li, and those around
him, took. Equal parts depressing, heart-warming, gut-wrenching and
uplifting, Li's tale was meant for the big screen.
Bruce Beresford's (Driving Miss Daisy) direction is occasionally hampered by over-indulgence, a small price to pay for allowing the free-flowing ballet performances all the air they need to breathe. When focussing on the younger Li in China it is slightly clichéd (even the score sounds somewhat stereotypical) and run-of-the-mill, however by the time we settle in on the adult Li, Beresford has really hit his stride and delivers an absolutely engrossing and affecting film. The tears may flow for a lot of people, but these scenes are authentic and touching, escaping the melodrama that often rears its ugly head at those moments.
The drama plays a big part in this extraordinary tale, although it wouldn't have worked if the mesmeric dancing wasn't front and centre. Without these sequences showcasing what the ballet virtuoso was really capable of, we wouldn't be able to believe the lengths these people went to just to ensure Li got his chance to shine. Fortunately, the resplendent performances we witness are breathtaking and show-stopping; each terpsichorean routine able to tell an entire story whilst allowing Li an outlet for his deep emotions.
In his first ever acting role, the Beijing Dance Academy and Royal Ballet School student Chi Cao doesn't so much as act as Li Cunxin, he is Li Cunxin. At first glance his silly sounding broken English and awkward attempts at romance seemingly come from lack of acting experience, but then you slowly realise this is what the real Li was most probably like. As Ben Stevenson, the venerable Houston Ballet artistic director who campaigns for Li to study in the U.S., Bruce Greenwood displays terrific diversity, his portrayal is elegantly realised and he ensures Ben's culturally savvy and flamboyant personality stops just short of being priggish. Elsewhere we have fine performances by Joan Cheng, Chengwo Guo and Ferdinand Hoang, with Amanda Schull and Kyle MacLachlan proving the weak links.
Get through the slow first 30 minutes then be prepared to be swept away by an epic real life saga that is best viewed at the cinema.
4 out of 5 (1 - Rubbish, 2 - Ordinary, 3 - Good, 4 - Excellent, 5 - Classic)
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