Mao’s Last Dancer is director Bruce Beresford’s film version of the autobiography of Chinese dancer Li Cunxin, known as “Lee.” It traces Lee’s life as a child, when he was plucked out of a remote Chinese farming village to go to Beijing and be trained for the Chinese ballet. And his consequent triumph and heartbreak when he comes to the Houston Ballet in 1979 and falls in love with an American girl–and refuses to return to China, knowing that his family could suffer from his decision.
It’s a unique, inspiring story, constantly fascinating, and made all the more watchable by the incredible dancing. In addition, the historical and political background of the burgeoning relationship between Communist China and the U.S. gives import to all the cultural scenes. Not only was I entertained every minute of this film, I learned a lot about an area of history that I’m largely unfamiliar with. I can’t recommend Mao’s Last Dancer enough.
As an adult, Lee is played by Chi Cao, principal dancer with the Birmingham Royal Ballet who makes his acting debut. The casting is perfect for he captures all the confusion of a stranger to America and the suspicion of the country that was ingrained in him by his Communist supervisors. Joan Chen, always a pleasure to see, plays Lee’s mother who defies local threats from the other peasants to support her son’s distant decisions. Amanda Schull, a dancer with the San Francisco ballet, is Lee’s young American wife, suitably distressed when cultural differences threaten her fragile marriage. Kyle MacLachlan is an immigration attorney whose integrity and determination are crucial to allowing Lee to stay in the United States.
The most extraordinary performance of the film, and perhaps of his career, is Bruce Greenwood’s mesmerizing portrayal of then-Houston Artistic Director, Ben Stevenson. Within seconds you realize that Greenwood is playing a man who is a dancer, a powerful society icon, a visionary, and gay. Not a word is ever said about his being gay, as it should be in both the film and real life. Under Stevenson’s compassionate wing, Lee learns to find his personal passion that was never developed in China. He transcends from being merely an athlete to becoming a dancer who can move audiences to ecstasy with his portrayals of the human spirit.
For balletomanes, Mao’s Last Dancer will give you a dancing fix to keep you going for a long time. Rarely have I seen so many different styles of ballet in one movie. The contrast between Communist ballet, classic Russian-modeled ballet, and modern ballet is wonderful to see. Passion, politics, music, dance, human struggles both personal and international, backstage details, onstage excitement–Mao’s Last Dancer has it all. Don’t miss it.