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Maos Last Dancer
Genre Drama
Year: 2009

Mao's Last Dancer, finally - a dance film where the story line is just as fantastic as the dancing - and true! The extraordinary biography of Li Cunxin makes a graceful leap from autobiography to film under the watchful eye of Australian-born director, Bruce Beresford (Paradise Road, Driving Miss Daisy) and screenwriter, Jan Sardi (Shine). The tag line for Mao's Last Dancer is 'Before You Can Fly, You Have To Be Free', an underlying theme throughout the drama with sharp contrasts between America and China under Mao's rule and last days.

Our hero and title character, Li Cunxin, arrives in Texas in 1979 as part of a cultural exchange after being picked for his courage and perseverance to withstand the allure of Western ideology. Beresford presents Houston as a safe haven for the fish-out-of-water dancer, who has something to teach about dancing and much to learn about freedom. From there, Beresford cleverly returns the audience to Cunxin's childhood through photos, dreams and memories, which provide a seamless flow to the story as Li's youth is explored in greater detail.

Plucked from an early age by one of Madame Mao's cultural delegations for intensive training at the age of 11, Cunxin was molded into one of the finest dancers to emerge from the Mao dynasty. His hardships, run-ins with teachers and spirit-crushing regime of exercise against an oppressive Chinese political backdrop are played back like memoirs as Li meets a young American girl and eventually seeks legal advice to defect. The eye-opening tour of life on the other side of the world seems too good to be true, but will Cunxin be able to sever ties with his home country and worse still his own family.

This is a coming-of-age drama and biopic, which accurately depicts the early '80s and portrays the newsworthy and uplifting story of Li Cunxin. The Maoist government isn't vilified beyond being another Communist state and is simply represented as a forceful and militaristic culture. Mao's Last Dancer would have been more controversial if it was made in the late '80s and by today's standards it's regarded as a simple contrast between cultures rather than trying to be subversive or critical of socio-political conditions. The film sides with what's come to be known as 'the free world', but keeps the narrative at an arm's length - making the audience feel, like an audience.

This makes the emotional punch of the story less manipulative, although there's no feeling of real identification with Cunxin. Beresford's storytelling swathes us with its inspiring and epic triumph of the human spirit drama, while almost effortlessly switching between such contrasting cultures and countries. The cinematography is understated, yet compelling... anchoring mis-en-scene for the era and capturing the essence of the dance in performances. The ballet is first-rate and they haven't settled for anything less than excellent with Chi Cao playing Li Cunxin as an adult. Interestingly enough, Cao's parents were two of Li's former teachers and Li asked Cao to play him in the film.

However, the lead star in this production is the powerful story and the whole ensemble act as a team of story adept facilitators, delivering fine yet perfunctory supporting performances. The name stars include: Bruce Greenwood, Kyle McLachlan and Joan Chen with the lesser known Chi Cao, Amanda Schull as Li's American wife, Elizabeth and Chengwu Gua as Cunxin as a teenager.

Mao's Last Dancer is a beautiful film much like Billy Elliot and Shine. However, without a powerful lead performance to match the story there's a slight disconnectedness that makes one feel just out of reach. This slightly diminishes the emotional impact of its climax. Then, there are aspects to the story that are left open-ended... such as Li's marriage, which ends quite suddenly and ambiguously. The main drive of the story is with Li's ability to reach his full potential in a climate of freedom and the true emotion that raises that performance. All in all, Mao's Last Dancer is an epic, triumphant and captivating story.

The bottom line: Moving.

4.00/10 ( 2 Votes )
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