Film review: 'Mao's Last Dancer' falls short of potential

By Chris Robinson

For the Deseret News

Published: Thursday, Sept. 23 2010 6:15 p.m. MDT

Liz (Amanda Schull) and Li (Chi Cao) in "Last Dancer."

Simon Cardwell

Enlarge photo»

"MAO'S LAST DANCER" — ★★ — Bruce Greenwood, Chi Cao, Kyle MacLachlan, Joan Chen; rated PG (violence, profanity and adult themes); Broadway

"Mao's Last Dancer" is an epic tale of love and betrayal, triumph and heartbreak, that captures the real-life drama and emotion of one man's search for freedom. Well, it almost is.

It is true that this Australian-made film — director Bruce Beresford's adaptation of Chinese ballet dancer Li Cunxin's compelling autobiography — is based on a fascinating story.

The setting is 1980s Houston, where a dancing student has been sent by Mao Zedong's Communist government to represent Chinese ballet and sample a Western approach to the art. At first Li — who knows only the underdeveloped sprawl of his native land — is completely awed by the massive skyscrapers, cultural differences and the overwhelming newness of everything around him (think Crocodile Dundee in New York City).

As Li struggles to get acclimated, flashbacks show us what his growing up years were like back home in China, where "Chairman Mao" was worshipped like a god and the people spoke mostly in political slogans.

We get to meet his family and see their struggle to survive and find happiness in the oppressive communist atmosphere (crying is not allowed, because it is "a sign of weakness"). But we never truly get to experience their hardship ourselves — to feel their pain and hopelessness, or Li's.

Never really connecting with the main character means that it's hard to be emotionally invested in him throughout the film, even as he overcomes difficult obstacles both as a youth in Chinese dance academies and as a young man in Texas, seeing the world for the first time.

The crux of the action comes when Li, who has begun to flourish on the American stage (and ignited an illicit romance with a native girl), visits the Chinese consulate in Houston. His three-month visa is up, and China wants him back.

But Li has other plans — he announces his intention to remain in America, prompting the surly communist officials to summarily kidnap him. This launches an international media frenzy and sparks a tense standoff between the Chinese and American governments.

At nearly two hours, the film seems to overstay its welcome, never quite living up to its potential as a story of inspiration and strength. Poor acting highlights the schmaltziness of the script, and things frequently feel a bit overwrought, forced and awkward.

But while it won't be winning any Academy Awards, the film does have some definite strengths. Foremost among them is the ballet. Enthusiasts will be delighted with the extended onstage dancing scenes, some of which are truly breathtaking. (Main character Li is played by the majestic Chi Cao, a principal dancer in England's Birmingham Royal Ballet.)

In addition, the film's intimate portrayal of communist China is fascinating in its honesty and provides rare insight into a culture most westerners know little about.

With some of the spit and grit of "Billy Elliot" (but without the language), "Dancer" makes you root for the good guys and has a positive message of perseverance, toughness and hope. The film, which contains practically no objectionable material, can appeal to every member of the family — except perhaps teenage boys.

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