Come to think of it, Mao’s Last Dancer is just the movie you’d expect from seeing ballet star Cunxin Li’s memoir adapted for the director of Driving Miss Daisy (Bruce Beresford) by the writer of Shine (Jan Sardi). Not that it would ever occur to you to expect such a movie. But here it is, arty and awkward, convoluted and obvious.
The reason it seems like a misstep to concentrate less on dance than on the inherent drama
Screenwriter Jan Sardi and director Bruce Beresford play to the simplest emotions.
of Li’s defection from China to the United States, in 1981, is that Beresford’s big-screen machine has an almost automatic way of converting drama into melodrama. You see a sweet little boy recruited from his provincial peasant village into Mao Tse Tung’s vision of dancing as soldiering. You see the strenuous, communist Beijing Dance Academy, where emotion and physical limitations are disregarded.
And yet young Li determinedly grows into his gifts. He is inspired by a sneak peek at video of Mikhail Baryshnikov, whose most beautiful move, of course, was to defect from Russia to live in Canada. And when Li eventually becomes an honored guest at the Houston Ballet during the last days of disco, well, you see where this is going. Cue the virginal, available blonde (Amanda Schull), the green-card marriage, the international incident.
As the adult Li, Chi Cao inhabits his space very elegantly, mitigating the movie’s tendency to infuse its choreography with disruptive reaction-shot cutaways and slo-mo accents. He also has the advantage of Joan Chen as his suffering mother, Bruce Greenwood as his mincing American teacher and Kyle MacLachlan as his sensible lawyer. They give off great moments of lucidity and connection here and there, but again the lumbering apparatus of the movie seems to intrude, bogging them down with its formidable gravity.
Communists may be relieved to know that the agenda here is not directly political. Or if it is, the commentary on capitalism is just as clunky. It is a mixed blessing that Mao’s Last Dancer is just sensitive enough to maintain, without any irony, that hackneyed effusions transcend all political differences. It amounts to an equal-opportunity reductionism, applied to Texans and provincial Chinese alike. A charitable view would read it as a nice gesture, but even still, the gestures in a movie about ballet should be more than nice.
Sardi and Beresford share the propagandist’s penchant for playing to the simplest emotions. But their commonness of purpose inevitably cancels out to mere commonness. “I dance better here because I feel more free,” Li says of his adoptive home, and it’s easy enough to believe him. What’s harder, unfortunately, is to feel genuinely inspired.