Mao's Last Dancer

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Bruce Beresford is nothing if not an unpredictable and versatile director, one who has hopped from genre to genre and from one era to another.

It's a sign of the times that Beresford, who in the 1980s was a mainstream Hollywood director in great demand, with pictures such as "Driving Miss Daisy" (1989) and before than "Tender Mercies" (1983), is now at the periphery of the industry, making smaller, more idiosyncratic stories. This is the case of his latest, "Mao's Last Dancer," an inspirational film about one man, Li Cunxin, and his extraordinary journey from poverty in China to international fame and success.

 
Based on the best selling autobiography, "Mao's Last Dancer" tries to —and to a large degree succeeds–in weaving an emotionally touching and upbeat tale about the quest for freedom and the courage it takes to live your own life.
 
But, unfortunately, Beresford is torn between the need to tell a personal story in a unique way and the demands of the biopic genre, which tend to standardize and reduce every subject into a digestible and accessible movie. End result is a well-intentioned but too earnest tale of one artist's struggles and triumphs, centering on the intoxicating love of art as well as the sacrifices that it calls for, particularly the pain of artists who are exiles and outsiders.
 
 
As noted, the source material is Li Cunxin’s best-selling autobiography (of the same title), which occupied the Australian Top 10 Bestseller List for more than a year and a half and currently on its 32nd printing. Published in more than 20 countries. The book has been received most favourably, winning the Book of the Year Award in Australia, the Christopher Award in America and the National Biography Award for which it was short-listed.
 
Screenwriter Jan Sardi producer Jane Scott had successfully collaborated on two films, "Shine," in 1996, which won Geoffrey Rush a Best Actor Oscar as the pianist David Helfgott, and more recently, "Love's Brother."
 
I recently read the book on a transatlantic flight and found it to be most intriguing in subject, and mesmerizing in historical and biographical detail. Obviously, for dramatic purposes, the book had to be compressed and simplified, with some events and personalities cut from the picture. To distil and condense his life into a manageable two-hour frame, the filmmakers have taken liberties in combining characters and compressing time.
 
Nonetheless, as scripted and helmed, the movie comes across as yet another variant of the familiar rags-to-riches story. To be fair, the rages in this tale are more extreme, because as Li Cunxin comes from a background of incredible deprivation while living in a totalitarian country. Yet against those staggering odds, Li achieved something extraordinary.
 
Spanning decades, the journey-like tale begins with depiction of Li’s rural Chinese peasant childhood and then leads to his moment of glory, performing before an elitist audience that includes the U.S. Vice President. Along the way, we stop for some colorful, exotic episodes, such as a day that turned out to be fateful, when Li is plucked out of his village classroom to go to Madame Mao’s Beijing Dance Academy, with all the pain that is involved with being taken away from home and family.

Three actors play Li: Chi Cao as the adult man, Chengwu Guo as the teenager, and Huang Wen Bin as the boy. Chi Cao is a handsome, skilful dancer (he performed with the Birmingham Royal Ballet), but he is also a good and appealing actor, effective as he is in quite a complex and complicated role; among other things, he's able to converse in two languages, Mandarin and English.
 

Covering several decades and diverse continents, "Mao's Last Dance" is nicely shot on location in China, the U.S., and Australia, capturing the specificities of each place and era.