DVD: Mao’s Last Dancer (2009)

January 11, 2011 | By

Return to: Home Blu-ray, DVD, Film Reviews / M

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Film: Good / DVD Transfer: Very Good

Label: Mongrel (Canada) / Region: 1 (NTSC) / Released: January 4, 2010

Genre: Docu-Drama / Biography / China

Synopsis: Chinese dancer Li Cunxin creates an international incident when he requests to stay in the United States in 1981.

Special Features: n/a

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Review:

The main focus of this film version of Li Cunxin’s best-selling autobiography is the international incident the world-class ballet dancer caused in 1981 whereby Cunxin married an aspiring American dancer, and was held by diplomats in the Chinese embassy during an attempt to request permission to remain in the United States.

Cunxin, one of the first Chinese dancers permitted to travel to the U.S. and study with choreographer Ben Stevenson for three months, eventually won his bid to stay, mostly due to the bad publicity that literally surrounded the embassy in Houston, and embarrassed the Chinese government.

From a dramatic standpoint, the incident lasted less than a day, which gave the filmmakers a major anchor around which they could build the story of Cunxin’s early childhood, being selected for training at the Peking Dance Academy, coming into his own as a charismatic dancer, and meeting Stevenson during a U.S.-Chinese cultural exchange – the latter the pivotal event which stoked a friendship between the two men, and gave Cunxin hope there was more to dance than government-decreed, political ballets about revolutionary class struggles.

The politics of the Cultural Revolution are felt peripherally, but certainly during the training flashbacks, they’re felt by Cunxin (dancer Chi Chao) when doctrine mandates a tortuous training regime, the politicization of the art, and the dismissal and arrest of a sympathetic teacher for going thinking too much about art instead of the revolution’s needs.

The early flashback structure is clichéd, but it works in terms of providing a contrast to Cunxin’s early culture clashes with America, a country demeaned by his Peking teachers as a capitalist basket case where people are miserable, poor, and live in the darkness due to a lousy standard of living and economy.

Once Cunxin falls for pretty dancer Elizabeth Mackey (Amanda Schull) and begins a romance filled with secret dinners and beach walks, screenwriter Jan Sardi is stuck with pure clichéd melodrama – either because the reality of Cunxin’s love affair was genuinely banal, or the creative choice was to indulge in predictable scenes, because Mackey (generally a cardboard character) is only important for being the girl Cunxin marries to stay in the U.S. Once that goal is realized, their relationship predictably fractures – her more humble dancing aspirations pale compared to Cunxin’s immediate fame – and she’s gone from a narrative that’s already lost its steam.

What’s left after the embassy incident is Cunxin accepting Stevenson’s contract as a headliner, and making a big splash with his debut performance of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring.

It’s at this point where the audience should finally realize Mao’s Last Dancer has been configured into cardboard melodrama, capped by feel-good reunions mandatory to every audience-pleasing film.

Cunxin’s parents – previously seen in an incoherent, pseudo-nightmare montage that’s presumed to have occurred during the Cultural Revolution (which officially ended before Cunxin’s trip to Houston in 1981) – have been flown to Houston, not only see their son dance, but greet him on stage.

Soon after, Cunxin’s ban from re-entering China is lifted, and the film closes with his return to his family’s village, and meets his once-disgraced teacher, granting his wish by performing a quick dance while the mighty mountain winds blow a storm – symbolic of the fiery power residing in Cunxin.

Director Bruce Beresford (Driving Miss Daisy, Shine) manages to integrate plenty of elegant dance moves and vignettes in modest widescreen, letting the choreography impress audiences in full, but by adopting a classical Hollywood film structure, the clichés and melodrama are pushed to the forefront and create a lumbering pace; had Mao’s Last Dancer been crafted with a docu-drama style, the drama would’ve been far more impressive and satisfying, never overstaying its welcome, and forcing the actors to mutter clichés and look rather pouty.

Perhaps the problem also stems from partially filming on location in China, mandating certain finesse to any criticism of the prior regimes.

Key Maoist aspects – the denigration of capitalism, the assured goal of eliminating class struggles, and Lady Mao’s visit t to the dancer school and scolding the instructors for the lack of overt political imagery – are safely criticized within the film.

The leading embassy figures also feel redressed as humanized staunch Communist figures: the embassy official attempts to convince Cunxin to reconsider his desire to remain in the U.S. by presenting arguments, whereas one suspects there was probably a high-pitched, ideologically saturated yelling match.

Additionally, the replacement diplomat who manages to bring Cunxin’s parents to the Rite of Spring premiere feels like dramatic license, only because the script doesn’t bother explaining how Cunxin’s parents – previously seen kneeling with a revolutionary guard putting a gun to their temples for some unknown ‘cultural violations or offence’ – show up at Cunxin’s Houston debut all happy and excited in evening attire.

At least the dancing is properly filmed, and Mao’s Last Dancer is a handsome production. Peter James’ cinematography is lush while giving Cunxin’s early childhood scenes a gritty look akin to old documentaries shot on reversal film. Christopher Gordon’s score fluidly incorporates traditional, classical and original thematic material, and avoids being saccharine – a clever touch, considering the music is ideally supposed to be as manipulative as the film.

The performances are fair, and Bruce Greenwood is somewhat fascinating to watch as Ben Stevenson, playing a possibly gay choreographer with just a bit of overt swagger without going completely into caricature. Stevenson never develops into anything memorable – we learn nothing about him beyond being Cunxin’s figurative sponsor, mentor, teacher, and friend – so Greenwood does the best with a another of the script’s underwritten characters.

Replicating the Australian releases, Mongrel’s DVD includes a clean transfer, although there’s some odd high-end distortion when the orchestra during the ballet performances reach peak volume. There are no extras (the DVD contains an interminable stretch of 10-15 mins. worth of trailers), which unfortunately robs the viewer of comparing history with filmic indulgences, but the Blu-ray contains deleted scenes and a making-of featurette. Those wanting a detailed account of the Cultural Revolution and the climate of Maoist China should examine the superb PBS documentary series China: A Century of Revolution.

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© 2010 Mark R. Hasan

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Related links:

CD / MP3: Mao’s Last Dancer (2009)

DVD / Film:  China: A Century of Revolution (1989-1997)

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External References:

IMDB — Li Cunxin Site — Official Film Site Soundtrack AlbumComposer Filmography

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Buy from:

Amazon.ca – Mao’s Last Dancer [Blu-ray]

Amazon.co.uk – Mao’s Last Dancer (Blu-Ray)

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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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