Bruce Greenwood, Chi Cao, Kyle MacLachlan, Joan Chen
Jan Sardi, Cunxin Li (autobiography)
New York Observer film critic Rex Reed has proclaimed Bruce Beresford's latest flick Mao's Last Dancer "a masterpiece." This proclamation begs two questions.
First, how the heck did I not know that Rex Reed is still alive?
Secondly, what film was Reed actually watching?
It couldn't have been Mao's Last Dancer, a film so heavy on the melodrama that one half expects cast members to pull out violins to play along with it all. There's no denying that Beresford (Driving Miss Daisy) nails the dramatic arc of the real life story of Chinese born dancer Li Cunxin, upon whose autobiography the film is based. Cunxin was the child of peasants who became an international ballet star and defected from China to the United States in 1981, created an not easily resolved diplomatic row and international situation.
Screenwriter Jan Sardi (Shine) and Beresford move the film between Maoist China and the Reagan era United States, specifically Texas where the ballet dancer lands to study under the Houston Ballet's Ben Stevenson (Bruce Greenwood) despite the impact it may very well end up having on his parents back home (a marvelous Joan Chen and Wang Shuang Bao).
As the acclaimed dancer, first time screener Chi Cao, a dancer with the Birmingham Ballet, exudes both the vulnerability of a young dancer going through a high degree of culture shock and the confidence of a gifted, agile young dancer whose life seems to gain meaning and freedom when he dances.
It's easy to understand why Sardi compresses the story, however, the compression leaves the film's dramatic arc at times feeling rushed, melodramatic and unnatural. As a contrast, the dance scenes are remarkably free and exhilarating with Beresford wisely stepping back and allowing them to unfold with tremendous grace and beauty.
Choreographed by Graeme Murphy and Janet Vernon, it is the dance scenes in Mao's Last Dancer that make this film a film to see for anyone who enjoys ballet or, for that matter, any form of dance. The ensemble cast is uniformly good, if not particularly outstanding, with Greenwood, Maclachlan and the always exemplary Joan Chen proving to be stand-outs here.
It's difficult to fathom in what way Mao's Last Dancer can be considered a masterpiece, a far cry from the finest work of either Beresford or screenwriter Sardi. That said, fans of dance will be enchanted and those familiar with the story will likely find themselves captivated by the way it's brought to life.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic