Friday, September 10, 2010

The man who danced toward freedom

It's possible to see Mao's Last Dancer as a fascinating story told with a simplicity that borders on naivete, and for about a quarter of the way through the movie that's just what I did. I immersed myself in a story based on ballet dancer Li Cunxin's tumultuous life. Taken from his parents as a boy in rural China, Li overcame initial weaknesses to become a strong dancer. He was selected to travel to the U.S. to study at the Houston ballet. He wound up staying in America, much to the embarrassment of the Chinese government. Alas, the movie's simplicity sometimes looks like a lack of sophistication with director Bruce Beresford (Tender Mercies and Driving Miss Daisy) alternating between Li's early years in China and his adaptation to a less constrained life in Houston. Played with great earnestness by Chi Cao, Li becomes the central figure in a drama that seldom veers much from a predictable course. Working in broad strokes, Bereseford sketches the torments of the Cultural Revolution, Li's culture shock upon arriving in America and his growing understanding that artistic expression requires a measure of personal freedom. Amanda Schull portrays Li's first love interest; Joan Chen appears as his peasant mother; and Kyle MacLachlan portrays the lawyer who comes to Li's aid when the Chinese try to force the dancer's return to Beijing. Bruce Greenwood portrays Ben Stevenson, artistic director of the Houston ballet and the man most responsible for bringing Li to the U.S. All of these characters could have benefited from more development. Ballet enthusiasts will be heartened to know that Beresford doesn't skimp on the dancing, but Mao's Last Dancer can feel more like a bold outline than an intensely imagined recreation of real events.

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