Reviewed by Marc Glassman
Mao’s Last Dancer
Bruce Beresford, director
Jan Sardi, script based on the autobiography by Li Cunxin
Starring: Chi Cao (Li Cunxin as an adult), Chengwu Guo (Li as an adolescent), Wen Bin Huang (Li as a child), Bruce Greenwood (Ben Stevenson), Amanda Schull (Elizabeth Mackey), Kyle MacLachlan (Charles Foster), Joan Chen (Niang), Camilla Vergotis (Mary McKendry), Zhang Su (Chan, Li’s dance teacher)
Li Cunxin’s story is the stuff of Hollywood dreams. Born in a rural village in China, he was chosen to be a ballet dancer at the age of 11 by Peking officials who happened to be visiting his obscure area of the world. They waved a magic wand and transported him to the nation’s capitol. Fighting homesickness and feelings of inferiority, young Li obsessively trained at his craft, becoming a brilliant dancer by his late teens.
A second magic wand was waved in his direction when Houston ballet impresario Ben Stevenson saw Li perform in Peking and was so impressed that he persuaded Chinese officials to loan him to his Texas dance company. It was the ‘80s and Li’s presence caused a stir in Houston and all across the U.S.; he was the first Chinese dancer to spend extended time in America.
Again, Li worked hard and was a success. But he also found a girl—Elizabeth, a young dancer in Stevenson’s company. They started an affair and Li decided he didn’t want to return to China.
Once again, a magic wand was waved but only after a truly dramatic scene took place. Li insisted on explaining his decision to stay in the U.S. to officials he’d gotten to know at the Chinese embassy in Houston. Angry, the Chinese refused to let him leave—and it was their legal right to do so because an embassy is officially a foreign domain. It took a lawyer (Kyle MacLachlan’s Charles Foster) a day to alert the media and persuade the Chinese not to deport Li back home.
Free to be a dancer in America but separated from his parents and brothers, Li learned to make a life for himself in the West. But it came at great personal cost—including the loss of his love for Elizabeth.
Mao’s Last Dancer is an amazing story—particularly because it’s true. The real Li Cunxin now lives with his second wife in Australia and was voted “father of the year” in 2009. His autobiography, which forms the basis of this film, was a huge bestseller in Australia and did well in many regions of the world.
Bruce Beresford, who directed Black Robe in Canada, Driving Miss Daisy in Hollywood and Breaker Morant in his native Australia, scores his biggest hit in years with Mao’s Last Dancer. The dance sequences are terrific and the three performers playing Li (as a child, adolescent and adult) are all convincing. Canada’s Bruce Greenwood is wonderful as Ben Stevenson.
But—and I’m sure you felt the “but”—this film skims the surface of a fascinating life. There’s a dark side to Li, which remains unexplored. Why did he choose to leave China? And Elizabeth? And—eventually—dance? What makes Li run? We don’t know and the film doesn’t tell us. Perhaps Li doesn’t know himself.