Reviewed by

Christopher Armstead

While watching Academy Award nominated director Bruce Beresford’s biography picture ‘Mao’s Last Dancer’, one of the things that I actually got out of this movie was that actor Bruce Greenwood can actually act. Not to say that I ever thought Bruce Greenwood was a bad actor, hardly, but he is usually cast to type. I mean look at the guy. He looks important, possesses an authoritative voice cemented by Warner Brothers choosing that voice to represent Bruce Wayne in their most recent Batman animated movie, and as such he usually plays important people such as CEO’s (Dinner for Schmucks), Presidents (National Treasure, Thirteen Days) or Commanders (Below, Star Trek). Or he’s stuck playing authoritative important assholes. So if I were looking to cast a swishy ballet director who is prone to leaping like a fairy (a literal fairy, not a gay person), Bruce Greenwood would not only be at the bottom of that list… he wouldn’t even be on that list. I’ll have you know that Bruce Greenwood completely pulled this off. Sure the character of Ben Stevenson is in charge and he does have some asshole tendencies, kind of keeping things the way they always are with Bruce Greenwood characters, but still.

‘Mao’s Last Dancer’ chronicles the life dancer Li Cunxin (Chi Chao) from his early days of being plucked from his parents home in mainland China to the years after he defected and became a primo ballerino for the Houston Ballet Company. Beresford tells this tale jumping back forth from China, where the young Li learns his craft, falls for a girl, and impresses his teachers with his determination, to America where Li perfects his craft and falls for a different girl which causes an awful lot of trouble for an awful lot of people.

Li first makes the acquaintance of Ben Stevenson while Mr. Stevenson and his principle dancers were on one of those foreign exchange missions, during the mid 1980’s, with Mr. Stevenson being instantly impressed by Li’s athleticism and fluid motion which was in direct contrast to his classmates who were plenty athletic, but mechanical with their movements. Stevenson uses his connections and in no time Li is in Houston Texas to further refine his craft.

As if Li wasn’t repeatedly warned enough about the evils of America and its corrupt economic system back on the mainland, the first thing his consulate does when Li touches ground is hammer into his teenaged head the dangers of the corrupt American economic system, and in particular, American women. Don’t be around them, don’t talk to them, don’t trust them. Li obviously didn’t hear a single word that cat uttered because it doesn’t take but a minute for Li to meet fellow dancer Elizabeth Mackey (Amanda Schull) and soon he’s in love.

Plus here in good ol’ U.S.A., in addition to having sex with white women, Li can truly express his art and is not beholden to any propaganda nonsense and thus it is with some reluctance that Li declares his desire to marry Elizabeth and defect to the United States. What follows is nothing less than an international incident with Li held in captivity as the powers that be go back and forth fighting for the young man’s freedom. Strangely enough this is really only the beginning of Li’s problems as the young man learns freedom, as it were, has its challenges as well.

As I was watching ‘Mao’s Last Dancer’ there was something about it that was oddly disconnecting. It could’ve been that team Beresford was attempting to cover so much ground in the life of Li Cunxin in such as a relative short amount of screen time that it was difficult to latch on to any one thing in this movie, say outside of the actual ballet dancing. For instance one of the more important parts of the film was Li’s relationship with his future wife Elizabeth but outside of sex, I guess, I’m not sure why these two were actually together in the first place. I would think for Li to voluntarily leave his country, and in his mind put his entire family in harms way, that it would have to be something very, very powerful for him to do this thing. If it was his art I would understand it more than the relationship since the art was played up far more than the love angle, but that’s not the way the movie set this situation up.

In addition Chi Chao, who is a trained dancer and not an actor, didn’t do the character of Li any favors by portraying him largely as a selfish, self-centered jerk. The truth of the matter is that no one in this movie was all that appealing save for Kyle MacLachlan’s erstwhile lawyer and the woman who played Li’s mother, which also made it somewhat difficult to build a swell of emotion for these characters, emotion a movie like this really needs to fully succeed. For reference in Beresford’s own ‘Driving Ms. Daisy’, yes Daisy was a cantankerous old biddy but Hoke offset that which made Daisy’s eventual come-around all the more rewarding. There was no offset type character in this movie, but then we are talking about Jessica Tandy and Morgan Freeman in the leads so I guess you have to do the best that you can with what you have. And we did enjoy Bruce Greenwood’s performance as Ben Stevenson.

None of this is to say that ‘Mao’s Last Dancer’ is a bad movie because it’s not. It’s an important story, this story is told well - albeit told from a completely biased slant and it is largely well acted. I just suffers from a sketchy narrative and characters that were difficult to care for, which is important in a heavily emotional movie such as this one.

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