Let me first start this movie review of “Mao’s Last Dancer” by saying that neither ballet nor opera are my cup of tea. I have an older brother that loves classical music and the opera, but the artistic and musical gene completely passed me by.
However, having said that, even if you’re as tone deaf or artistically ignorant as I am, doesn’t mean that you won’t enjoy the movie “Mao’s Last Dancer.” The ballet dancing and cinematography are top notch enough that even a neophyte like myself can appreciate it’s technical execution.
But that’s the least of the matter.
This is the heartwarming true life story of Li Cunxin, a boy plucked from abject poverty from the peasant rice fields of Communist China to become a national ballet sensation, based off of the best selling autobiography “Mao’s Last Dancer.”
Told in intermittent flashbacks, you become grounded and invested in these real life characters. These flashbacks do a really great job at painting the poignancy of his family and the strength of their familial bond. For example, the mother’s love for her son is exemplified when she spends the entire night to sew his blanket, pressing on even after the light bulb has burned out, before sending him off to the big city.
On a personal level, I could really relate to how much my own family and especially mother sacrificed for me in order for me to achieve success.
“A mother is a person who seeing there are only four pieces of pie for five people, promptly announces she never did care for pie.” – Tenneva Jordan
There’s obviously an element of “White Man Saving the Day” Syndrome, but it is based on a true story. For example, it was pointed out that most of Li’s fellow students came off as robotic and emotionless, even though they had perfect technique and muscle tone except for Li. And the Communists are obviously the bad guys in this story which grossly simplifies the political context of that day and age, but again, this is based on Li Cunxin’s real life story.
Now Chi Cao as Li Cunxin is great as the innocent, naive, and earnest foreigner. He doesn’t speak a lot (he mostly plays earnest and endearing immigrant), but he definitely carried the movie well.
Actress Amanda Schull plays cute as a button Elizabeth and Li Cunxin’s first girlfriend who is absolutely adorable and reminds me of my own college sweetheart. The first date scene of teaching a girl all about Asian food and chopsticks is definitely something I can relate to. It’s rare to see a positive AMWF love story which makes this a good “first date” type movie to watch with a girl.
Bruce Greenwood‘s (as Ben Stephenson the ballet director) attempt at explaining the racial epithet of “chink” was endearing. Although, this isn’t really a movie that explores racial distinction, prejudice or interracial dating. Its more of a casual acknowledgement that such things exist while letting the main meat of the story follow Li Cunxin’s personal and professional career. For example, there’s a little reverse racebending as Li Cunxin plays Don Quixote and when questioned if a Chinese man could play a Spaniard, it was pointed out Marlon Brando played a Chinese person in a movie, and then life goes on.
The complexities of using a marriage to stave off being forcibly returned to China, the pressures of differing career path and the subsequent disintegration of the marriage are explored. And even though that first marriage ends in a divorce, our Asian leading man sweeps Australian ballerina Mary McKendry (played by Camilla Vergotis) figuratively and literally off her feet (whom he is still married to with three children).
I think as a date movie if you wanted to introduce the element of interracial dating, “Mao’s Last Dancer” is a good, emotional choice that highlights the Asian male protagonist in a confident, artistic, and masculine light. There aren’t a lot of movies that highlight AMWF (or AMXF romances for that matter) much less positively, but “Mao’s Last Dancer” is definitely a good movie in its own right.
It may be somewhat slow if you’re not into ballet and there are certainly parts you might get bored with, but the dance cinematography, the acting and the historical anachronism of the 1980s Communist politics, more than make up for it. But who knows, you might learn a little something about ballet or living under China’s Cultural Revolution.
Probably the most amazing thing is how this is all based on the best-selling and true to life autobiography of the same name. If I hadn’t known that, I would have assumed that the “too good to be true” storyline was an obvious ploy at emotional manipulation.
In a nutshell, “Mao’s Last Dancer” is a feel good movie that pushes all the right buttons and all the more inspiring because it is true.