At the Arthouse

Mao's Last Dancer delivers the emotion — along with scenes of Houston

Mao's Last Dancer delivers the emotion — along with scenes of Houston

To be honest, if it weren’t for its Houston connection, I probably wouldn’t have seen Mao’s Last Dancer at all. Its story of a young Mao-era Chinese dancer finding love, art, freedom and himself in America sounds too good to be true, or, unkindly, too predictable to be interesting. 

Yes, democracy is better than oppressive one-party rule, and, yes, capitalism produces quite a bit more wealth and comfort than does communism.   But if a dance movie is going to tell me all that, then I want Baryshnikov to be in it.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the cynic’s ball: I saw the movie and was deeply moved.  (If you must know, I cried twice.)  Li Cunxin’s story happened to a real person, not to a symbol of anything, and his triumph over the conditions he grew up in came at a very dramatic price. 

I say that that the story is familiar, but China’s Cultural Revolution was so cruelly bizarre that the stories it produced always seem a little surreal.  As an impoverished 11-year-old peasant, Li, sixth of seven children, was selected by emissaries of Madame Mao to come to Beijing, without his family, to study ballet.  Li’s training is about as brutal as you’d expect, and after a time he confesses to a sympathetic teacher that he doesn’t even like ballet.

But, thanks in large part to that same teacher’s inspiration, Li finally throws himself into the challenge.  When Li puts himself through a Rocky-style (but based on fact) training program, the film goes into inspirational mode, and Beresford makes it work.

During the thaw provoked by Nixon’s visit, Li’s life changes very quickly. Ben Stevenson (Bruce Greenwood) finds him on an early visit to China and brings him to Houston as a student. Once here, Li wows his fellow dancers, and in good showbiz tradition, saves the day —at Miller Outdoor Theater—by replacing an injured principal dancer.  His performance at Miller proved Li was a star in the making.

During his free time he starts a relationship with Liz (Amanda Schull), an aspiring dancer. He also gets a long look at the opulent American society that his Chinese teachers had assured him was blighted by poverty and squalor. Li’s eyes open pretty quickly, especially when Stevenson takes him on a shopping spree at the Galleria.

When the Chinese government refuses to grant Li an extension, he secretly marries Liz and resolves to stay in the U.S. He goes to the Chinese consulate (don’t expect to recognize the building, which in fact stands in Sydney, where Li lives now) to announce his intentions and then is held against his will, until the Chinese government bows to media and political pressure (and the resolve of Li’s lawyer, Charles Foster (Kyle MacLachlan)) and allows him to stay. 

The marriage and the diplomatic crisis it provokes are the parts of Li’s story that say ‘movie’ the loudest, but they’re the weakest part of the film. The relationship with Liz feels rushed and poorly thought out, perhaps it was in real life. The marriage is not even shown, and neither is Li’s thought process. How clear was he about his motives for marrying her?

And the showdown at the consulate is much weaker than in Li’s written account. That’s probably because the main action happens outside the consulate, while Bush Sr. is making his phone calls.  Also, Cao’s acting abilities (he’s a principal at a British dance company, but a first-time actor) aren’t quite up to the demands of the scene.

This stretch of the film was so weak that I was afraid it had completely run out of gas. But Beresford rallies, and with the two final dance scenes, one at the Wortham Theater and one in a Chinese village, the abundant emotion he provokes feels honestly earned.

The film offers numerous pleasures, including Bruce Greenwood’s turn as Ben Stevenson. Torn between wanting to keep the Chinese happy (the  was planning to tour China when Li defected) and being a decent human being, Stevenson may be the most complex character in the film, and Greenwood plays him with subtlety and wit. Other secondary characters, such as Li’s mother (Joan Chen), and the sensitive Teacher Chan (Zu Shang), put human faces on the suffering caused by the Cultural Revolution. 

I had mixed feelings about the dance scenes.  Cao is a tremendous dancer, and in general they work well. But too often Beresford loses his nerve and depicts Cao’s leaps in slow motion. Most of the dances were too darkly lit, and the camera simply assumes the point of view of a spectator.

But given the film’s emotional impact, these are quibbles.  And it was great to see Miller Outdoor Theatre on the big screen, even if the people in the front rows are wearing tuxedoes! 

News_MAO_Chi Cao_as Li Cunxin_Camilla Vergotis_as Mary McKendry
Chi Cao as Li Cunxin and Camilla Vergotis as Mary McKendry in "Mao's Last Dancer"
News_MAO_Bruce Greenwood_as Ben Stevenson_Camilla Vergotis_as Mary McKendry_Great Wall
Bruce Greenwood, left, as Ben Stevenson and Camilla Vergotis as Mary McKendry. Greenwood steals the movie with his portrayal of Stevenson.