Friday, August 20, 2010
Mao's Last Dancer
If you were the best ballet dancer in China back in 30 years ago, how much would you be willing to sacrifice in order to stay in the United States? What if your sacrifice means giving up your home country forever and be separated from your family, perhaps also forever? This is not a hypothetical question, but the remarkable personal story of Chinese ballet dancer Li Chunxin (李存信).
Based on Li Chunxin's autobiography, Australian director Bruce Beresford's new film "Mao's Last Dancer" (Australia/USA 2009 | in English/Chinese | 117 min.) almost guarantees to move you into tears by Li's incredible personal journey, terrifically played by three actors.
In 1972, China is sinking deep in the tragic Cultural Revolution. In a poor village in Shangdong, 11-year-old Li Chunxin (Huang Wen Bin) is hand picked by a team lead by Mao's wife Jiang Qing, who is in charge of cultural affairs. He is to be trained to be a ballet dancer. He leaves his mom (Joan Chen 陈冲) and dad (Wang Shuangbao 王双宝) and comes to Beijing to start his unbearably hard training. A few years later, Li Cunxin (Guo Chengwu 郭承武) becomes an excellent dancer and performs propaganda plays for Jiang Qing and the party elites.
In 1981, Li Cunxin (Cao Chi 曹驰) comes to Houston Ballet for a three month long cultural exchange program. He is shocked by the tremendous cultural differences first but quickly is drawn into this new world. He wants to stay longer but his request is refused by the Chinese government. He rushes into marrying his new American girlfriend Elizabeth Mackey (Amanda Schull) in order to stay in the US. His defect becomes headline story that affects the US-Sino relation. Although he is allowed to stay in the US, but his Chinese citizenship is stripped away and he is banned from visiting his family in China.
The film walks a fine line between telling a deeply moving story about family and a display of anti-communist propaganda. The film would have failed miserably if it bashes China as Li's aggressor or enemy, although there are moments the film almost slips into that direction. Luckily, the film mostly centers on Li's emotional struggle in his difficult decisions during his teenager years and the time of his defect.
Besides the rich story, the film is beautifully shot with great performances and elegant ballet dance. However, the costume design is a regretful eyesore whenever the Chinese are dressed in the film. They are completely out of the place and show creator's poor knowledge about Chinese history. For example, hardly anybody wears Chairman Mao's head-pin on their clothes in the '80s, but Li Chunxin faithfully wears one when he comes to the US.
The film also shies away from examining the true motivation of Li's defect. Based on the event, Li's defect and marriage make him an opportunist, not an artist with respectful integrity and strong character.
Li Cunxin might have been picked up as Mao's last dancer, but he no longer dances for Mao. When he dances, he dances for his family, and that is precisely why this film touches its audience profoundly, regardless what opinion one might have about Li's defection and integrity.