One of my biggest regrets of last year's TIFF was not getting a chance to see Mao's Last Dancer. The Bruce Beresford (Driving Miss Daisy, Black Robe) film based on the autobiography by Chinese Ballet dancer Li Cunxin (pronounced Lee Chwen-sheen) has since been picked up for distribution after having received very positive buzz at the festival. The jointly Australian, Chinese and American production was awarded first runner-up for The Cadillac People's Choice Award, losing out only to Oscar-winning Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire.
I know very little about Ballet, thus I wasn't sure what to expect walking into an advanced screening of the film. What I came away with was a gripping, emotional experience that truly hit home for me. The story begins with Li as an impoverished child in Shandong province, recruited by government officials to train as a dancer. After being separated from his parents, played by veteran actors Shuangbao Wang and Joan Chen, he struggles in strength and agility at his academy. Under the encouragement and tutelage of a questionably patriotic instructor, Li finds his best stride and rises to the top of his class. From here, he gets recruited by Houston Ballet Company Artistic Director Ben Stevenson (Bruce Greenwood) to study in America.
After studying in Houston briefly, a principal dancer falls injured on the night of a major performance and the talented Li (played as an adult by Chi Cao) gets an opportunity to fill in; he shines. Matters get complicated as Li's star continues to rise. He falls in love with Elizabeth (Amanda Schull), an aspiring dancer also and soon after, his stay in America reaches expiry and he is required to go back to China. Never losing sight of his patriotism to communist China, Li finds inspiration in freedom while in the United States and firmly decides to remain in America. This of course is much against the will of the Chinese consulate who put him under duress to go back to China.
Charles Foster (Kyle MacLachlan), who acts as Li's immigration lawyer, goes up to bat in his fight for residency in America, but all of this comes at a great cost also as he is forced to rethink what it is that matters most to him. The Chinese government would prove unforgiving for his disloyalty, effectively tearing Li apart further from his family. We wonder whether he will ever see them again and if he will be able to continue to thrive as an artist in his new American life. Also, we want to know whether or not his young love with Elizabeth will survive all this push and pull.
Beresford manages to pull us into this fascinating story into Li's psyche, providing just the right amount of tension in making us very conscious of his welfare as others around him are constantly trying to decide his fate. Li prevails though in the end and this triumphant tale is a rewarding experience guaranteed to elicit tears from just about anyone. I cried.
Despite a few awkward patches in Jan Sardi's script, especially in scenes where Elizabeth and Li are paired, everything else is exceptional. In his first ever attempt at acting, Birmingham Royal Ballet's Cao is breathtaking in the film's demanding dance scenes, completely engaging in his naive curiosity of the world. Chengwu Guo who plays an adolescent Li, also lights up the screen and has a bright future ahead. Canada's very own Greenwood is perfect in his toned-down effeminately mannered, but never overbearing mentor and Chen as always, is remarkably good in what little screen time she does get.
Mongrel Media/MGM's Mao's Last Dancer hits theatres May 14, 2010 and cannot possibly be summed up justly in a blog entry or review. It needs to be seen and experienced. You will not regret it. I mean it. Grade: A+