Mao’s Last Dancer overcomes generic biopic devices thanks to passionate performances and an inspirational story which has transferred well from page to screen.
The film is based on the bestselling autobiography by former ballet dancer Li Cunxin. Written by Jan Sardi (who received an Oscar nomination for her work n Shine) and directed by Bruce Beresford (who delivers his best film in over a decade), this adaptation reiterates Cunxin’s journey with very little innovation, but with the books stirring emotional spirit intact.
Cunxin’s story begins in a poverty stricken village during Mao Zedong’s reign of China. While being force fed communist principals and decrees such as “Mao is the great saviour of the people”, Cunxin is plucked from his classroom, tested, and forced –albeit willingly – to join the Beijing Dance Academy.
Years later, Cunxin is chosen to dance in America as a part of a cultural exchange program. His love for the country and marriage to his first wife (played by Centre Stage actress Amanda Schull) leads to Cunxin’s defection, which causes an international incident at the Chinese Consulate in Houston, Texas.
While Cunxin’s memoir is told in chronological order, Beresford has opted to use the ultimate biopic device: flashback. It is easy to see why he decided to go down this route, since it is a sure fire way to compare the vast cultural clash that Cunxin encountered during his initial travel to America. But the feeling cannot be shaken that such a unique story deserved a little invention in its film technique.
A big no-no is also displayed in its use of Sydney as an alternate to Houston, with Australian viewers especially sure to laugh it up at unintentionally funny faux pas, as clearly marked Sydney streets are glaringly displayed in full view of its audience.
Yet while aspects of Beresford’s approach to the films source material can irritate, it is not enough to undermine Cunxin’s story and the spirited performances of the players chosen to depict the people in his life.
Character actors Bruce Greenwood and Kyle MacLachlan are reliably good as Houston Ballet artistic director Ben Stevenson and attorney Charles Foster, respectively.
But it is the performance by Birmingham Ballet principal dancer Chi Cao as Cunxin which stands out, satisfyingly matching all of the physical, cultural and ethnic aspects needed, while also hitting all of the right emotional buttons. This is in spite of Mao’s Last Dancer being Cao’s first acting role.
The films master stroke of casting real life dancers in pivotal roles pays off big time, with acclaimed choreographers Graeme Murphy and Janet Vernon taking advantage of their cast of trained professionals, and creating drop dropping dance sequences sure to woo many a non-fan to the ballet.
Tears will be appropriately shed for this biopic, as Cunxin’s story justifiably deserves.