Like its defector hero, Mao’s Last Dancer is neither here nor there. The tale of a dancer from Communist China who becomes entranced by the American way of free expression was made for the term “middlebrow,” at least as directed by Bruce Beresford (Driving Miss Daisy).
Adapted by Jan Sardi (“Shine”) from the autobiography of Li Cunxin, Mao’s Last Dancer begins with an eleven-year-old Li (Wen Bin Huang)—his family’s “Sixth Son”—being plucked from rural Shandong Province by a couple of Madame Mao’s cultural aides to attend the Beijing Dance Academy. The child becomes a teenager (Chengwu Guo) in tune with a quietly rebellious teacher who prioritizes the artful aesthetic of dance over its potential to be a propaganda tool.
When his teacher fails to hold the tide of Communist influence, Li’s mentorship gap is quickly filled by Ben Stevenson (Bruce Greenwood of Star Trek), the artistic director of the Houston Ballet. On a visit, Stevenson singles out Li (now played by Chi Cao, star of the Birmingham Royal Ballet) as a diamond in the rough. Thanks to a cultural exchange program, Li wins the opportunity to spend a few months in America under Stevenson’s tutelage.
Of course, the Communist government isn’t truly interested in cultural exchange, so Li is warned in no uncertain terms not to be taken in by the American point of view. But Reagan-era Texas is a wonderland for Li, with relatively sprawling quarters in Stevenson’s house; disposable cash for food, clothing and nightlife; and women who openly speak their mind. Among the latter is Liz Mackey (Amanda Schull), who strikes up a relationship with the wide-eyed prodigy from China.
Predictably, Li resists the notion of returning to China and giving up his newfound artistic and sexual liberation (only implied due to the chaste PG rating). And thus Stevenson is unhappily embroiled in a defection drama requiring the services of lawyer Charles Foster (Kyle MacLachlan). Matters are complicated by Li’s longing not to sever ties with his China-bound family (including mother Joan Chen), not to mention Liz’s career needs and her suspicion that Li’s love for her may be inseparable from her potential to be a green-card bride.
It would be nice to say that the film’s political and social threads succeeded in being even slightly provocative, but Mao’s Last Dancer comes across as determinedly dull, even in the flatly filmed ballet sequences. Cao is earnest but lacks emotional resonance; cast against type as the fey, graceful Stevenson, Greenwood is moderately more interesting (kudos to his ballet instructor) but still let down by a script that seems phobic about dramatic tension. Despite the word “Last” in the title and the presence of Joan Chen, don’t mistake this for The Last Emperor, a film that could actually raise a pulse.
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]
Fox gives Mao's Last Dancer a dual release in DVD and Blu-ray editions, available first as a Target exclusive (then widely available on July 26, 2011). The image quality is fine, as expected from a brand new film: the hi-def image accurately represents the theatrical look of the film in every regard. Be aware that this means a shift in quality in the many scenes taking place in China and those that take place in America: the former have an intentionally rougher, muddier look due to a process involving a filmic blow-up, while the more hopeful American scenes reflect the tone in warmer hues and sharper detail and contrast. Certainly the Blu-ray is the way to go to get the most out of the image, as well as the audio, which comes in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. This isn't the most fully realized surround presentation out there, but the prioritized dialogue is consistently clear, and the mix comes to life in the ballet sequences, which feature lush Stravinsky orchestrations.
The disc comes with but one bonus feature of note. The solid featurette “The Making of Mao’s Last Dancer” (19:21, SD) includes behind-the-scenes footage and interviews with Kyle MacLachlan, Joan Chen, Amanda Schull, producer Jane Scott, director Bruce Beresford, screenwriter Jan Sardi, cinematographer Peter James, and production designer Herbert Pinter.
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