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Australia 2009
Directed by
Bruce Beresford
117 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Sharon Hurst
3.5 stars

Mao's Last Dancer

Synopsis: Li Cunxin (Huang Ben Win) is a small boy in rural China in 1972. Officials from Mao's government arrive to choose students who will be sent to Beijing for training with Madame Mao's Dance Academy. As Li grows to a teenager (now played by Chengwu Guo) his talent flourishes and as a young adult (Chi Cao) he is chosen for a cultural exchange with the American Houston ballet. There, artistic director Ben Stevenson (Bruce Greenwood) recognizes the young dancer's gift and organizes for him to spend a year training and dancing in Houston. When Li decides to stay in the U.S., things get tricky with the Chinese Government.

Based upon an immensely popular autobiography by Li himself, Mao's Last Dancer is a fine adaptation of a fascinating and beautiful story. Filmed in location in China, the USA and Australia, the film covers a broad and sweeping canvas of personal and political events. The film uses the popular device of toggling in time between present and past, and so opens with Li being welcomed to Houston in what was his first visit outside of China. He's been warned to beware the imperialist devils and the evils of the West and there is some humour in observing his early and confused American experiences.

The film then takes us back to the remote village where Li lived with his hard-working peasant parents and siblings. When he is removed to study in Beijing we are afforded an intriguing and disturbing look at the harshness of life for children in Mao's China. They are forced to adhere to gruelling schedules, no emotion is tolerated, and are fed anti-Western propaganda. Any ballet viewed as non-supportive of Red China is deemed unacceptable and the uncompromising politics of the regime is a threat to any dissenters, such as Li's gentle teacher, Chan.

Forward in time to Houston and we see Li get his big break when a lead dancer is injured and he takes over, to a rousing audience response. Politics again take centre-stage when Li's application to stay in the US is refused and the Chinese embassy virtually holds him prisoner, an incident which made huge international news headlines. These political elements are nicely woven into the screenplay (by Jan Sardi of Shine fame) without dominating the personal story, which is one of courage, talent and determination.

Finding the right cast who could both act and dance was a huge challenge for Beresford, but all three actors playing Li are splendid. Both trained dancers, the grace and skill of their movements is stunningly captured with lovely cinematography and some exceptional ballet scenes. Graeme Murphy's choreography is flawless throughout.

All the supporting cast are strong, especially Greenwood who plays Stevenson with a remarkably surprising and authentic gayness, but without ever camping it up. Amanda Schull as Liz and Camilla Vergotis (another Australian ballerina, playing dancer Mary McKendry) both come off well as significant women in Li's life, while the ever-gorgeous Joan Chen as Li's mother captures strength and emotion, and is unforgettable in a scene near the end guaranteed to leave no dry eye in the house.

There are moments where perhaps a touch of emotional manipulation creeps in, but overall for my tastes, Mao's Last Dancer has many of the elements I require for a highly rewarding movie experience.




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