Veteran director Bruce Beresford (Driving Miss Daisy, Tender Mercies) has crafted a rich cinematic feast for lovers of movies and dance in the stirring and remarkable true story, Mao's Last Dancer. The saga of an impoverished young boy from Communist China who is taken by Madame Mao's cultural delegates to study Ballet in Beijing and later in the United States, Mao's Last Dancer will appeal to upscale adult audiences with its mix of gorgeous Chinese locations, splendid dance sequences and compelling personal story. It should play well into the fall as a nicely sized arthouse hit.
Based on the autobiography of Li Cunxin (Chi Cao), the story begins when Li, then an 11 year old Chinese peasant, is shipped to Beijing to study ballet. He grows into a major star and is discovered by Houston Ballet Artistic Director Ben Stevenson (Bruce Greenwood) who arranges a cultural exchange and brings this international sensation to Texas. There he meets and falls in love with an American Ballerina (Amanda Schull) and marries her. When he decides to defect in order to stay with his new wife he simultaneously creates endless political problems for Stevenson and the company. Eventually he becomes a major star with the Houston and Australian ballet companies and is reunited in an emotional scene with the family he thought he'd never be allowed to see again.
Turning Li's story into an unforgettable and richly rewarding motion picture experience appears to be a labor of love for Beresford and his talented screenwriter Jan Sardi (Shine) and this Australian production marks a strong return to form for the 70 year old director, although at times it does drift uncomfortably into sentimentality. It also fudges with the facts in a scene where Li's mother (Joan Chen) is emotionally reunited with her son on a surprise trip to the Houston Ballet. Apparently this didn't happen exactly as it's presented on screen but it does make for a stirring (if manipulative) moment in this otherwise beautifully conceived film.
Long months of planning pays off other dividends for Beresford as the actual Chinese locations lend an air of authenticity that couldn't have been achieved anywhere else. The meticulous casting of the local actors is flawless. The three non-pros chosen to play Li Cunxin at various ages (from 11 to teen to adult) are all simply superb with real kudos going to Chi Cao for carrying the bulk of the performance. A trained dancer with no acting experience, Cao pulls off this tricky role with the ease of a veteran. Opposite him, Greenwood is also quietly effective as the dedicated ballet taskmaster with a real problem on his hands. Amanda Schull is fine as the woman he marries, as is Camilla Vergotis as another colleague he later hooks up with after the marriage goes sour. There's sturdy support from Kyle MacLachlan who helps to unravel Li's political mess, veteran Australian star Jack Thompson and the always wonderful Joan Chen as Li's mother.
The actual ballet sequences are beautifully choreographed and shot by Beresford in a fashion that lets us experience the performance without feeling stagey theatrics. It's a neat feat in a must see movie for fans of classical dance and compelling biography.
Distributor: The Samuel Goldwyn Company
Cast: Bruce Greenwood, Chi Cao, Joan Chen, Kyle MacLachlan, Amanda Schull, Camilla Vergotis and Jack Thompson
Director: Bruce Beresford
Screenwriter: Jan Sardi
Producer: Jane Scott
Rating: PG for a brief violent image, some sensuality, language and incidental smoking
Running time: 117 min
Release date: August 20 ltd.