Mao’s Last Dancer (2010)

Rated PG. Our ratings: V -1; L -2; S/N-3. Running time: 1 hour 56 min.

Rejoice, young man, while you are young, and let
your heart cheer you in the days of your youth.
Follow the inclination of your heart and the desire
of your eyes, but know that for all these things
God will bring you into judgment.
Ecclesiastes 11:9

A group picture taken during Houston Ballet artistic director Ben Stevenson s first visit to China, with student Li seen right below the American.

2010 ATO Pictures

Taking place over a span of years, Australian director Bruce Beresford’s film is based on the biography written by acclaimed ballet dancer Li Cunxin. While still a young boy “Sixth Son,” as his peasant family refers to him (there are six other brothers), is chosen by his teacher and the local Communist commissar to be sent to Beijing as a ballet student at Madame Mao’s Beijing Dance Academy. Tested for his suppleness and ability to stand pain, the boy is also rigorously interrogated about his beliefs and whether there had been any “class enemies” in his family.

The regimen at the school is cruel, the students’ bodies subjected to unnatural stresses and strains as the limbs are forcibly bent almost to their breaking point. As Li grows older one teacher is especially harsh with him, considering him weak and lazy. Fortunately there is also the kindly Teacher Song who takes an interest in Li, inspiring him by a story about an archer who at first was too weak to draw back the bow until he trained so hard that he could at last easily draw the string back to the fullest extend. “‘Build up your strength and soon you’ll be able to fly,” he tells the boy.

Sad to relate Teacher Song runs afoul of Madam Mao’s insistence that their ballets should teach the doctrines of the Party. At a presentation of such a ballet, “The East Is Red,” dancers in army uniforms dance around the stage waving Communist flags as they fight against Evil Imperialists. Because of his open disapproval of such corruption of art, Teacher Song is taken away in a van while Li and fellow student watch. Ironically, when Li is up for evaluation and it appears that he will be dropped because of his slow progress, it is the teacher who had been so harshly critical that casts the deciding vote to allow him to stay. Li does train diligently, as hard as Rocky ever did, and eventually, as Teacher Song had promised, he is able to fly around the stage, athletically executing jetes that are awe inspiring.

During a cultural exchange visit Houston Ballet artistic director Ben Stevenson (Bruce Greenwod) singles out Li as the most talented dancer at the school. Not long afterward in 1981 Li is in Texas on a six-month scholarship offered by Stevenson. There are some nicely underplayed scenes in which Li, who had been coached by the commissars into fearing the corruption of America, is in awe of the buildings and splendor of the mall stores, of the vastness of Ben’s house. The young man is very suspicious of the gifts of American clothing that his host buys for him, but is finally persuaded to accept them. Li’s struggle with the English language is handled well without this being too cutesy.

When a lead dancer in the company suffers an injury, Ben’s associates caution him to cancel the event because so many important people will be in attendance. However, Ben is confident that his prize student can handle the role. Thus Li, in good ole show biz tradition, goes on in place of the injured lead dancer and becomes an overnight sensation. His lithe and graceful style sweeps the audience along, and he is now the star whom all dance lovers want to see. He also develops in secret a relationship with another student Liz (Amanda Schull).

To make a long and complicated story short, when Li’s year is up and his government refuses his request to extend his stay, the young man is faced with the decision of whether to defect or return home Another way to put it, he must choose to follow his art and his heart (he has hastily married his girl friend) and risk the consequences to his family, or to return to the Communist dominated nation and fit in with its propagandist use of art. His decision to defect leads to an international incident when the head of the Communist legation in Texas forcibly detains him for several long hours and Ben and lawyer Charles Foster (Kyle MacLachlan) work hard at negotiating his release.

Li of course is banned from returning to China, and his family faces cruel persecution.

How this all ends will leave you quite moist-eyed—just when I thought the film climaxed, there came a scene even more emotionally intense. Along with Secretariat, this is one of the most “feel-good” movies of the fall, filled with glorious music and wonderful ballet scenes The marvel is that the filmmakers found such a talented dancer who can also act, and the two young actors that portray Li as a child and then a teenager are also excellent. Music and ballet lovers will enjoy the artfully photographed portions of such ballets as “Swan Lake” “The Nutcracker, and “The Rite of Spring” (Even the politicized Communist potboiler was fun to watch.) If you enjoyed Billy Elliot or the Red Shoes, you should love this film with its stand up and cheer ending.

For reflection/Discussion Might contain spoilers, especially after Question 5.

1. How does this film compare with other show business films you have seen? That is, what common elements are employed?

2. How does it compare with other films set in China or that deal with East/West relationships? What do you think of the policy of taking a child from his family and subjecting him to such rigors? And yet what opportunities did this offer the child? Who comments on this aspect to the boy?

3. In what way do you think that artistic director Ben Stevenson’s motives for helping Li are mixed? What are the mutual benefits?

4. What is it that at first draws Li to America? How do we see him move beyond desiring America’s material benefits to its deeper ones? Compare this portion with other films about an immigrant coming to the USA. Remember the old (1984) Robin Williams’ Moscow on the Hudson?

5. What is the dilemma of his decision concerning defecting? How were families often held hostage during this period by Communist governments? What do you think of his quick marriage? A matter of romance, or selfishness, or a combination?

6. Why does his marriage break up? Can you understand the motives/feelings of his lesser talented wife?

7. What did you think of the last two scenes—of his performance in Washington, and his dancing with his partner and new wife in you know where?

8. Where do you see moments of grace in this film? At what points might you believe that God might be working through people and events?