Eugene Weekly : Movies : 11.04.10


The politics of dancing
by Jason Blair

MAO’S LAST DANCER: Directed by Bruce Beresford. Written by Jan Sardi, based on the book by Li Cunxin. Cinematography, Peter James. Music, Christopher Gordon. Starring Chi Cao, Bruce Greenwood, Joan Chen, Kyle McLachlan and Amanda Schull. Samuel Goldwyn Films, 2010. PG-13. 127 minutes.

Chi Cao in Mao’s Last Dancer

I’ve always thought of melodrama as the embryonic phase of drama, a glimpse of what drama looks like prior to years of care and feeding. Watching Mao’s Last Dancer, however, I experienced melodrama as the over-development of drama, a pushing of drama into deep emotional waters — breakups, illness, dreams dashed — before it knows how to swim. The true story of a Chinese peasant, Li Cunxin, who eventually becomes a dancer in the Houston ballet, Mao’s Last Dancer has numerous things going for it, not least of which is director Bruce Beresford (Driving Miss Daisy) and solid source material in Li’s autobiography. But the script by Jan Sardi (The Notebook) is so over-committed to the emotional heavings of Li’s story that no self-respecting theatergoer can help but wince at the suspended tears, solemn head nods or — bless us all — the life-changing events witnessed from behind snowy windowpanes. 

During Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution, Li Cunxin is chosen to attend the Beijing Dance Academy, a role for which Li appears comically unprepared. He is the runt among his strapping male classmates, the only one who can’t do splits or who cries himself to sleep at night, a disturbing trend reversed after a quick pep talk from his mentor. Flashing forward, a muscled and graceful Li (now played by dancer Chi Cao) catches the eye of Ben Stevenson (a bouncy Bruce Greenwood), who’s touring China in hopes of securing an exchange student for the Houston ballet. While it’s good to see Greenwood actually smiling in a film — he was last spotted as Christopher Pike in the Star Trek reboot — his early scenes with Li are too charming by half. What with Ben’s constant marveling at Li’s constant marveling — Houston in the throes of disco and day-glo — after a while you just wish someone would upset the whole enterprise, cultural revolution or not. 

That upset arrives in the form of Liz (Amanda Schull), an injured dancer who quickly brings Mao’s Last Dancer to a new level of camp. It’s not merely the fact that Liz declares her virginity in the most stilted of ways — why that moment, of all moments, to raise the language barrier? — but more the fact that Liz tends to float in and out of Dancer like a half-forgotten butterfly. She loves her Li, no two ways about it, and when Li decides to defect, she’s there with him until the end; or nearly the end, when she abruptly decides to re-pursue her career at the expense of their relationship. The fact that Cao and Schull are both actual dancers adds a measure of reality to the production — and in fact, fans of ballet may find a refuge in Mao’s Last Dancer, which dispenses with quick cuts and timid establishing shots and instead presents extended on-stage performances. But so much else in Mao’s Last Dancer is lacking or goes unexplained, such as Ben’s motivation for recruiting Li, Li’s sudden temperature changes around Liz or for what reason Kyle McLachlan (Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks) chooses to show up as a Houston lawyer. What’s not left to the imagination? Everything else.

Mao’s Last Dancer opens Friday, Nov. 5. at the Bijou. Fifty percent of proceeds from all screenings on Sunday, Nov. 7, will benefit the Oregon Ballet Academy.