Mao's Last Dancer
Dramatic turns, choppy flow: ‘Last Dancer’ follows life of Chinese star
‘Mao’s Last Dancer’’ is historical ballet camp. The movie tells the story of Li Cunxin, but portraits of Mao get as many close-ups as the actors. Li was plucked from his family as a boy and arduously turned into a star, courtesy of Madame Mao’s Beijing Dance Academy. He was plucked again from China and placed in the Houston Ballet as an exchange student. The movie jerks back and forth between Li’s childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood, which is spent in 1980s Texas.
The film is based on Li’s memoir and was directed by the Australian Bruce Beresford, and it’s been given the kind of bland professionalism you’d expect from a movie based on an uplifting life. There’s occasional halo lighting and slow motion for the high jumps. The most interesting elements of Li’s story — dance, politics, and the politics of dance — have been dulled from their source material, though not beyond recognition. (The trips to the past do turn up Joan Chen as Li’s poor but glamorous-looking mother.)
Huang Wen Bin and Chengwu Guo play younger incarnations of Li. The adult version is played by the primo dancer Chi Cao, who’s not bad. He makes everything he sees and hears seem like news to him — capitalism, blondes, disco. But it’s sad the way the movies can turn an interesting life into boilerplate. Does the subject go through relationship troubles? Does he have to stand up to and surmount adversity? Will he dance “The Rite of Spring’’ without coming undone?
The ballets are badly filmed. The camera shoots them often from the point of view of the patrons in the auditorium or in a way that dishonors the choreography. The editing then hacks it all up so the moviegoer remains at a constant disadvantage. The extras pretending to be season ticket holders usually have the better seats. If the object was to showcase the talent of these dancers, my advice would have been to stop cutting.
Beresford has never been a particularly visual director. His movies — “Tender Mercies,’’ “Driving Miss Daisy,’’ “Double Jeopardy’’ — spend a great deal of time watching people. Shot, reverse shot: It’s standard stuff. His trick is to extract light comedy or high emotionalism from basic technique. Here, there are some good scenes involving Bruce Greenwood, who plays the retired English dancer and now-former artistic director of the Houston Ballet, Ben Stevenson. Greenwood finally gets an entertaining break from playing virile presidents, captains, and dads. Here, he’s a vision of effeminacy. His hair bounces along with the rest of him.
Beresford encourages the cast to be dancerly, and it’s an authenticating if comically histrionic touch. Greenwood prances up to a giant door, like something out of Jean Cocteau. The dancer Amanda Schull plays Li’s first wife, Liz. After an argument with Li, she appears to chassé across the room and collapse on a bed, in tears. And you don’t know you’re curious about how ballet dancers handle Rick James’s “Super Freak’’ until you see it.
But these are flourishes. You could build an entire movie around them, but sustaining that would require the filmmaking equivalent of a pastry chef. The movie prefers to hit louder dramatic notes. This is how we up end inside Houston’s Chinese consulate, where Li is held hostage for threatening to defect. A handful of well-dressed cast members, including Greenwood, Schull, and a drawling Kyle MacLachlan, as Li’s lawyer, stand around a grand mansion living room for 21 hours, trying to figure out how to free him. The crisis is meant to be the film’s dramatic highpoint. It looks like a game of Clue.