Mao’s Last Dancer
Directed by: Bruce Beresford
Cast: Chi Cao, Bruce Greenwood
Running Time: 1 hr 57 mins
Release Date: August 6, 2010
PLOT: The true story of Li Cunxin, an extraordinary Chinese ballet dancer who studied in America, and later refused to go back to Communism.
WHO’S IT FOR?: Those who like inspirational true-life dramas. While this does feature a lot of dancing, it does not limit itself to the audience that usually goes to ballets.
EXPECTATIONS: A couple of months ago I had seen a trailer that made Mao’s Last Dancer look like a grandiose, “feel good” underdog story with themes of art and passion colliding with those of political nature. Yes, this definitely looked like it was “From the Producer of Shine.”
Chi Cao as Li Cunxin: As a dancer, Cao springs to life with miraculous moves that have us thinking this actor might be as good as the actual Li Cunxin was. When he’s recreating Cunxin’s performances, he is near transfixing – the opposite can be said when he’s reading from a script. Of course the strict ways of Communism have made a statue out of him, but even then Cao plays this part too plainly. It becomes difficult to tell whether he’s playing Mao-robot too much, or just isn’t the best actor. He’s certainly a great dancer.
Bruce Greenwood as Lance Fender: Maybe in the real world, Greenwood’s character has a more effective presence. While he’s certainly a pleasant guy, he’s a very simple character, whose primary objective is to keep challenging Cunxin’s instilled ignorance about American culture. Apparently he has an extraordinary legacy in the world of dance. In Mao’s Last Dancer, this is something we only hear about, instead of seeing it for ourselves.
TALKING: The weakest aspect of the entire picture is its romantic drama, which is already mediocre in its placement of the story. The cheesy dialogue used in these moments doesn’t help the film’s cause any more. As for inspirational bumper stickers, Li Cunxin doesn’t have many on his belt, with an exception of, “I want to fly.”
SIGHTS: A number of training sequences are provided to drill in the idea of the audience just how grueling the life of a dancer can be. The effort pays off when we see Li Cunxin perform in at least five different ballets, each of them given a few minutes to play out on their own.
SOUNDS: One of the more grandiose aspects of Mao’s Last Dancer is its score, which mixes Oriental melodies with western string arrangements in some instances. By the end of the story, the lush score has aimed to make a giant ballet of itself, with the music swelling up until the very final frame.
BEST SCENE: Of all performances by Chi Cao as Li Cunxin, the most impressive moment can be seen in his take on “Don Quixote.”
ENDING: Does life imitate Hollywood, or does Hollywood imitate life?
REWATCHABILITY: Whatever magic there may be in Mao’s Last Dancer wears off before the movie is over. It’s not likely it would reappear for another viewing.
Li Cunxin’s extraordinary life story loses a disappointing amount of its specialty with this film’s terrible habit or resorting to clichés in order to fulfill its goal of providing a full picture. While the story of a performer breaking out of Communism and into America’s freedoms isn’t entirely new, the saga of ballet dancer Li Cunxin doesn’t have to be cluttered with familiar elements that resemble Hollywood productions more than real life. Chi Cao’s performance is more impressive when he’s opening the audience’s mind to the fluidity of ballet, and not so much when acting in a fashion that is a bit too plain to credit towards the character’s strict upbringing.
Overall, the movie has little new ideas about the differences between communist China and America, and its presentation lacks a bit with a handling that is too plain for a story about an artist who took great steps and giant leaps to stand out from the crowd.
FINAL SCORE: 4/10