Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway
Mao's Last Dancer
"Mao's Last Dancer" is based on the autobiography by Li Cunxin. As the film opens ballet dancer Cunxin (Chi Cao) arrives at the Houston international Airport from Beijing China. The first thing he sees is a bust of President Reagan as it is 1981. This is in direct contrast to a flashback in China circa 1950, showing huge banners of Mao. Alas, both countries idolize its leaders with Pop Art celebrity.
As a young dancer, Li Cunxin was drilled to think that America was the center of capitalist misery. Cut quickly to Li in 1980, dancing at a Houston disco and the truth is revealed: America is freedom and you are free to criticize your leaders. Cunxin has trouble adjusting. He is left a stranger in a culture of wanton consumption. He has little use for $150 suits and blenders that make smoothies. He is confused by the color TVs.
He is under the wing of Ben Stevenson, director of the Houston Ballet, played by Bruce Greenwood. Stevenson is obsessive, elitist and controlling. Only later in the film is it revealed that Stevenson is a man of absolute control and his kindness and care for young Li, is warped into self- centeredness.
When Li falls in love with American dancer Liz (Amanda Schull), Stevenson turns venomous and outraged. Li gets married to Liz with the help of the legal wizardry of attorney Charles Foster (Kyle Maclachlan). Li becomes plagued by nightmares of his parents being shot, sacrificed for his American freedom.
"Mao's Last Dancer" is a compelling underdog story. At times when Li Cunxin was being bullied by his teachers and working out with heavy painful-looking leg braces, I was reminded of "Rocky" and the original version of "The Karate Kid" and this is not a bad thing. The visual impact is heartfelt and striking, especially in the "Rite Of Spring" sequence. Chi Cao, who maintains a Kafkaesque blend of suspicion and innocent surprise, suddenly leaps like a Pagan juggernaut from the fiery earth in that routine and audiences will cheer.
As Liz becomes whiny and insecure, Li marries dancer Mary Mckendry (Camilla Vergotis) who has surprisingly little dialogue, but she moves perfectly like a poetic echo to Cao's every step. The last image of Li and Mckendry poised like conquering rockets, speaks of the hope and promise of a new America. When balanced against our current political climate of fear and unrest, the visual effect is as poignant and delicate as Chinese calligraphy.