“Mao’s Last Dancer” is based on the autobiography of ballet dancer Li Cunxin, who in the 1980s defected from his homeland of China to seek artistic and political freedom in America.
It’s an entertaining, warm tale told in an old-fashioned, straightforward way, and has beautiful ballet segments. It’s also epic in scope, and is anchored by a winning performance from Chi Cao (in his screen debut) as Cunxin.
The narrative starts with Cunxin first arriving in America, after being chosen to study with the Houston Ballet, where he meets Ben Stevenson (Bruce Greenwood), the company’s choreographer, and others who welcome him.
As Cunxin starts learning about American culture, we’re taken back to his early days as a peasant village child in communist China. He is plucked from school one day by authorities and taken to learn ballet at a school with other kids who have no choice in the matter. They’re limber, they can stretch, they’re in.
Cunxin at first doesn’t click with his instructors and wants to go home. He doesn’t understand ballet. But we follow him as he eventually makes a special bond with one of his teachers, and as he finds strength and grows into a promising dancer.
So promising, in fact, that he gets the Houston opportunity. He’s chosen to represent China because of his loyalty to the communist regime and for his ability to not be swayed by loose American influences.
But Cunxin gets a taste of American freedom and likes it. He explores his own individuality, and discovers love and newfound stardom.
When his stint with the ballet nears its end, Cunxin decides to defect, putting himself — and his family back in China — in danger. Things get more complicated when the Chinese embassy gets involved, which makes international headlines.
Eventually, Cunxin goes on to become a celebrated, world-renowned ballet dancer, but not without great personal cost. These themes are explored, but swiftly.
So are the political overtones, in sort of a CliffsNotes version of oppression. The Chinese authorities are almost caricatured villains.
Perhaps such shortcut storytelling is a lack of time to tell such a broad story — it does manage to never be overwhelming.
But that doesn’t make for truly absorbing cinema. Director Bruce Beresford (“Driving Miss Daisy”) never gives us raw passion, the kind that the characters talk about having. That we’re engaged at all is a testament to Cao’s sturdy, inward yet wide-eyed performance. His dancing is a marvel to watch, as well.
Still, it’s hard not to like a film with such good intentions, so determined to be a feel-good, inspirational story. It edges toward heart-tugging near the end, but “Mao’s Last Dancer” eventually earns its sentimentality.
“Mao’s Last Dancer”
Rating: PG (brief violent image, some sensuality, language and incidental smoking) Starring: Bruce Greenwood, Chi CaoDirected by: Bruce BeresfordShowing at: Warren Theatre (east)