Amid laughter and a lot of tears, former Houston Ballet dancer Li Cunxin and many of his close Houston friends watched a movie detailing his amazing life Saturday night at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.
The pre-release screening of Mao's Last Dancer drew capacity crowds at two showings. Two of the movie's stars, Bruce Greenwood and Kyle MacLachlan, mingled with the crowd, along with the men they portrayed in the movie, Houston Ballet artistic director emeritus Ben Stevenson and Houston immigration attorney Charles Foster, respectively.
"I'm absolutely thrilled with the film," Li told the audience after the first screening, as he pointed out several of his former Houston ballet dance partners and his first wife, Elizabeth Mackey. "How [director] Bruce Beresford squeezed 20 years of my life into a two hour movie is absolutely a miracle."
Li flew in from his home in Australia for the screening, arriving just before it started.
The movie, which opens Aug. 20 at the River Oaks Theatre, details Li's journey from China, where he was plucked away from his family at an early age and sent to study dance at a school for students with great potential, to his first trip to the United States, where he was an exchange student at the Houston Ballet. In 1981, Li married Mackey and defected to the United States. He was detained at the Chinese Consulate on Montrose Blvd. in what threatened to become an international incident until the Chinese govenment reversed course and allowed him to stay in the United States.
Scenes of Houston figure prominently in the movie, with exteriors of Miller Outdoor Theatre, Wortham Theater Center, China Garden restaurant, the Chase Building, and the Houston Ship Channel. Most interior scenes were shot in Australia, since that's where most of the film's financing came from, said Houston Film Commission director Rick Ferguson.
Afterwards at a museum reception featuring champagne and delicacies from Gigi's Asian Bistro, the principals mingled with the crowd that included former Houston Ballet principal dancer Lauren Anderson, Lynn Wyatt, Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau director of corporate affairs Sharon Adams, Carolyn Farb, Houston Ballet general manager Jim Nelson and former Houston Post critic Carl Cunningham, who covered Li's career. The screening was presented by MFAH, Houston Ballet, The Asia Society Texas Center, the Houston Film Commission, and the Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Greenwood said he had only met Stevenson the previous night. The actor based his performance on conversations he had had with former Houston Ballet dancers. "I was overwhelmed with the love they had for him," Greenwood said.
The actor, who also stars in Dinner For Schmucks (the No. 2 movie this weekend), was in Houston for less than 36 hours. On Sunday, he returned to Mexico, where he is filming Cristiada with Andy Garcia and Eva Longoria Parker.
MacLachlan said he had come to Houston previously to meet with Foster and tape recorded much of their conversation to properly study Foster's accent. "The one word that helped me was 'sno-cone,'" the actor said.
He also noticed that Foster was always wearing his class ring from the University of Texas. Foster offered to lend his ring to MacLachlan for the movie, but the actor tracked one down instead.
At a reception hosted by Foster and his wife Lily at their Courtland Place home Saturday night, the attorney said he was impressed with MacLachlan's portrayal.
"You're always worried that the thing is going to go Hollywood, but the movie is so authentic and powerful," Foster said. "[MacLachlan] could have played it as a cowboy or a gunslinger. But he wanted authenticity. And that's what I wanted. What could be better?"
In between greeting longtime Houston friends at the Foster home, Li reflected on the emotional evening.
"Houston recognized one of their own son's stories," he said. "That's all I really hoped for."
He has already seen the movie 11 times and will likely see it several more times as he promotes it in Germany, Poland and Japan. Could China be next?
"I hope so, because it's a personal story between China and the West," Li said.