Mao’s Last Dancer film review: pulling the right moves

Mao's Last Dancer

Green lightLike most a-star-is-born biopics Bruce Beresford’s Mao’s Last Dancer affectionately charters the protagonist’s journey from an undiscovered hopeful to a celebrated artist – in this case from Chinese ballet prodigy Li Cunxin’s upbringing in rural China to his acclaimed dance career in America.  And like most films about dancers it accentuates – consciously or not – the sheer physical stagnancy of the movie-going experience, the audience inadvertently made to feel like blogs of lard fixed to a seat. We watch, in between bites of a choc top, swigs of coke and fistfuls of popcorn a lifetime of exercise, hard work and body-flailing condensed into two hours of triumph over adversity, practice makes perfect, dreams becoming reality and all that inspirational stuff that happens, or could happen, or (let’s face it) could happen but probably won’t when you’re somewhere other than a darkened auditorium watching another person’s success story.

Mao’s Last Dancer made me feel so lazy I went to the gym for a workout afterwards. More disconcertingly it also made me want to slip on some tights and shake my caboose, and anyone who sees me getting jiggy with it are likely to realise – after collecting their jaw from the floor and decreeing that there is no god – that my style is, shall we say, not ballet, but then again Li Cunxin probably doesn’t write film reviews so, um, each to their own. One can always fall back on the infallible logic of Douglas Adams’s infinite probability drive: somewhere, right now, someone just like Li Cunxin is watching a movie about a petulant blogger who cracks the big time. Or, if not the big time, at least gets a couple of random comments on his post. But I digress.

With Mao’s Last Dancer Beresford has made an uplifting film told with little bling or flair, a glossy but not over-celebratory treatment that feels believable enough but exists in that shiny alternate cinematic universe where real life tangents either fit neatly into the necessary rhythms required for interesting storytelling or are stuffed in regardless – either way it’s the same for audiences unfamiliar with the true life story and can’t distinguish between what loosely happened and what is pure fantasy and folly, which is just about everyone. The plot (based on Cunxin’s best-selling memoir) plays out like Billy Elliott crossed with Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story: Cunxin (Chi Cao) comes to the U.S. because of his prodigy-like dancing abilities and is seduced by the American way of life, digging his heels in by finding a girlfriend, chowing into greasy food, generating nods of approval from his teachers and standing ovations from his audiences and generally accruing the sort of vaguely self-indulgent lifestyle impermissible in the Chinese motherland.

Cunxin gets his big break when the star of the Houston ballet cops an injury a few hours before show time and Cunxin, as a last minute replacement, must learn the part in three hours, which paves the way for a very cinematic series of trailer-friendly lines i.e. “three hours! That’s impossible!”“No, he can do it! He’s aaammazzingg!” etcetera. The story gets some friction when Cunxin decides to disobey China’s wishes and stay in America, and when he announces to his Chinese brethren his pending marriage to girlfriend, that’s when the fit hits the shan.

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  1. I’m actually surprised that you liked this Luke as I found it bordering on soap-opera. I appreciated the ending but I did cringe during some of the earlier scenes. However, I quite like the way you’ve discussed the way narratives like this are position in a “shiny alternate cinematic universe”. It’s a very reasonable point.

    My biggest problem is that the the dancing was so uninspired and that is largely to do with the way it was filmed. I sort of discussed that issue in my review but this comment broke it down even further and I’m very much inclined to agree.


    by Thomas Caldwell on Oct 7, 2009 at 2:15 pm

  2. Li didn’t learn the whole thing in three hours. He already knew the solo part. He just had to learn the part with Lori.

    by ErnestL on Oct 7, 2009 at 6:25 pm

  3. …] my review of Mao’s Last Dancer here. Comments (0) | […

    by Box office blitz for Mao’s Last Dancer – Cinetology on Oct 9, 2009 at 7:47 am

  4. …] list here) and I have no major objections. I’m not convinced Bruce Beresford’s direction of Mao’s Last Dancer warranted a nomination; debut director Serhat Caradee would have made a better choice for his […

    by Samson & Delilah scoops 2009 AFI Awards – Cinetology on Dec 14, 2009 at 12:25 pm

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