Mao's Last Dancer

Chinese ballet star Li Cunxin meets girl and America and falls in love

Really, somebody needs to try something new with the biopic formula. Flashback surveys of famous lives, no matter how inspiring, have become stale, overly earnest affairs that dutifully chart melodramatic highs and lows in the broadest strokes possible. It doesn't need to be so. Tim Burton turned the tale of Ed Wood into something brash, irreverent and even melancholy. Alex Cox gleefully wallowed in the muck and mire of Sid Vicious. Martin Scorsese depicted the life of Jake LaMotta as a poetic psychodrama, and David Lean introduced the world to T.E. Lawrence in the most epic of adventures.

So why does Bruce Beresford, who made the hard-nosed, anti-war Breaker Morant and the touching Tender Mercies (as well as the cloying Driving Miss Daisy), indulge in the genre's worst clichés with Mao's Last Dancer? An unabashed humanist, the veteran Aussie director's filmography is a hit-and-miss litany of well-meaning films that tackle cross-cultural connections. His career has simmered into under-the-radar efforts, few of which have brought him notice. This ham-handed tale of Chinese ballet star Li Cunxin will do little to critically change that dynamic. 

For one, Jan Sardi's script (Shine) does him no favors. Predictable and toothless, it paints its drama with a big, thick, sentimental brush and reduces characters to stand-ins for real human beings. Despite its soaring dance sequences, Li's fresh-off-the-boat amazement at all things American, the Texas-gay flamboyance of Bruce Greenwood's Bo Stevenson, and the almost polite tyrannies of Mao's regime play like a bland made-for-TV melodrama.

Yanked from his family at a young age, Li Cunxin (adult dancer Chi Cao) was forced into grueling instruction at the Beijing Dance Company, transforming him into a master dancer and devout adherent of communism. Chosen to tour with the Houston Ballet in the early '80s under artistic director Stevenson, Li is seduced by the material and technological wealth of America, while falling in love with a hot young dancer (Amanda Schull). Surprise, surprise, he defects, which not only endangers his family in China, but challenges a lifelong allegiance to his country. Education versus experience, oppression versus creative expression, these become the basis of Li's conflict (with gallons of guilt to fuel the fire).

Never a stylist, Beresford seems lost with the material. It's clear that he wants to celebrate Li's passion and creative freedom through dance (though we could use a few less slow-mo sequences), but his story-telling is too safe, too rote. He and Sardi soft-pedal Li's triumphs by depicting the abusive actions of Mao's oppressive Chinese government in the most inoffensive ways possible. With only one scene of implied violence (we hear gunshot executions but see nothing) — and a dream sequence to boot — the grim realities of Li's home-life are downplayed into abstraction. 

By all accounts, his real-life travails were harrowing, creating a dramatic rift in his indoctrinated loyalties. Done well, it could have set the stage for a cathartic and reflective journey into profound disenchantment and remorse. Audiences are often suckers for stories like this — the lone underdog fighting against repressive interests to do the thing he loves most in the world. But Mao's Last Dancer is so generic — even misguided (including Rick James' "Super Freak") — in its treatment that our desire for vicarious triumph is thwarted by a mediocrity on the scale of the Great Wall of China.

Opens Friday, Aug. 27, at the Landmark Maple Art Theatre, 4135 W. Maple Rd., Bloomfield Hills; 248-263-2111.

Jeff Meyers is a film critic for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].

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