By Andrew Hamlin
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
“Mao’s Last Dancer,” directed by Bruce Beresford, tells the true story of Cunxin Li, a Chinese ballet star who comes to Houston, Texas in 1981 as an exchange student studying at the Houston Ballet. Li (played by Chi Cao, a dancer with the Birmingham Royal Ballet) steps off the plane to a welcoming committee lead by the Houston Ballet’s choreographer, Ben Stevenson (Bruce Greenwood).
Li gets a warm hug from Stevenson, which clearly disconcerts him. He also gets a cowboy hat and a Houston Oilers cap, both of which mystify him. His new world bears only a passing resemblance to his old one, and he’s frequently confused.
Chi Cao captures this phase of Li’s development with a lot of warmth.
Li is a man out of his element, but warm-hearted, good-natured, and determined to do his best at the one thing he knows he understands: dancing.
In flashback we see Li’s childhood in China’s Shandong Province.
Picked out of a country classroom in 1972, he’s accepted for acceptance at the Beijing Dance Academy.
The Academy proves even harder than the auditions. There boys and girls train through straining 16-hour days. Li’s personal nemesis, teacher Gao (Gang Jiao) insists that Li is not strong enough and works the young dancer until he practically collapses.
Director Beresford marks the difference between Li’s childhood and his adulthood with contrasting color schemes. In China, characters walk through shades of grey and dress themselves in slightly different shades of grey. Only swatches of bright red—for the Communist revolution and the flags waved to celebrate it — intrude upon this restrained landscape.
In Houston, colors burst out everywhere. Skycrapers shine silver in the sun. People put on pastels for casual wear. The disco where Li learns a few new dance moves, glows bright blue. It’s all almost more than the newcomer can take in.
The disparity between Eastern and Western ballet styles also challenges Li. As Ben Stevenson grumbles at one point, the Chinese dancers know precision and regimentation, but lack inner passion. They look more like athletes than artists.
Stevenson trusts Li as one of the few Chinese dancers who can bring passion to the stage. But the Western concept of artistic freedom is strange to Li. In China, dance and other arts must serve government purposes.
And through it all Li misses his family, especially his parents, played by Joan Chen and Shuang Bao Wang. In a few simple but deftly drawn scenes before Li leaves, we see the great warmth and love of the mother for the son.
Joan Chen, an accomplished actress, has rarely seemed more understated or more purposeful. Later when Li worries that he will never see his loved ones again, we understand the enormity of that sacrifice.
And Chi Cao, who has never made a movie before, emerges as an amazing find. His dancing radiates power and romance. Throughout Li’s private life he stumbles through the English language and Western concepts in a warm, winning way that keeps us interested in Li even when he succumbs to all-too-human mistakes in romance and relationships. As we watch Li fumble earnestly to master American ways, we watch Chi Cao’s dancing and acting mastery in action.
“Mao’s Last Dancer” opens Friday, Aug. 20, at various theaters in and around Seattle. Check local listings for prices and show times.