Contributed By Cindy Koh
Mao’s Last Dancer is a Bruce Beresford movie adapted from the best-selling autobiography of Houston Ballet’s principal dancer, Le Cunxin. In 1979, during a cultural exchange to Texas, Le fell in love with an American woman and managed to defect to America where he pursued a successful career in ballet.
The movie vacillates between modern-day America and China during the Cultural Revolution period, where the story begins. Le Cunxin (Chi Cao) is in elementary school when he is picked by visiting Beijing government officials to be trained at the prestigious Beijing Dance Academy. The village life in rural China is beautifully depicted by Beresford, thanks to superb acting by Joan Chen who plays Le’s mother. Communist China in the era of Mao Zedong was powerfully captured in Le’s flashbacks, performed, in Mandarin with English subtitles. This served only to out the contrast of China’s culture with hip and modern America.
Chi Cao, 32, played Le with authenticity. The affinity he felt for the role could well be explained by his similar experience, as Chi also left China for England in 1994. He too was torn between staying in England and returning to China. Coincidentally, Chi is also the son of two of Li’s dance teachers at the Beijing Dance Academy.
Director Beresford was masterful in the hidden nuances and dry wit he wove into the film. In one scene, Li asked Ben Stevenson, the artistic director of the Houston Ballet why he could not find the meaning of the word “chink” (which someone on the streets had called him) in the pocket dictionary he always carries with him. Stevenson replied that the word describes the stage light that shines through an opening in the curtains.
The highlight was the defection scene at the Chinese consulate in Houston—a dramatic and tension-filled climax in the show. For ballet fans, the dance sequences justifiably showcased the magnificent pirouettes which shot Li to worldwide fame during his time with the Houston Ballet.
Mao’s Last Dancer is certainly a movie worth watching. It was a runner-up at the People’s Choice Award at the 2008 Toronto International Film Festival .