Movie Review: ‘Mao’s Last Dancer’

Jo Ann Skousen Contributor
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“Mao’s Last Dancer” (2009). Bruce Beresford, director. Great Scott Productions, 117 minutes. In English and Mandarin with English subtitles.

“Mao’s Last Dancer” is a wonderful little film that balances the horrors of communist China against the joys of dancing. Based on Li Cunxin’s autobiography of the same name, the film tells the story of a young peasant boy who was plucked from his village at the age of 11, transplanted to Beijing, and eventually sent to America to join the Houston Ballet as part of a cultural exchange program.

With no prior dance experience, Cunxin and other boys from around the country are selected purely on physique, flexibility and adherence to communist dogma to train in Madame Mao’s newly reopened Beijing Ballet Academy. Separated from his family and often homesick, Cunxin trains for 16 grueling but often unproductive hours a day. He finally catches the vision of dance when he watches a contraband video tape of Mikhail Baryshnikov, and his dancing blossoms. “Mao’s Last Dancer” juxtaposes Li’s experiences as a dance celebrity with the Houston Ballet against his austere upbringing in China, cutting between the two settings throughout the film. It is a fascinating piece of history as well as a work of art.

As Madame Mao’s thugs — er, I mean, representatives — enter Cunxin’s classroom, they order the children to sing. I suppose they were checking to see how vigorously the children mouthed the party propaganda, since it certainly did not help them know whether the children could dance. The irony of the children singing “Mao brings wealth to the people” is abundantly clear as we see the abject poverty in which the citizens of Quingdoa village exist, still living in huts and using pre-modern agricultural methods 150 years after the invention of the steam engine.

Cunxin (Chi Cao) experiences understandable culture shock as he arrives in Houston, where he lives for the summer with Ben Stevenson (Bruce Greenwood), artistic director of the Houston Ballet. “You have all these rooms for just yourself?” he asks Ben incredulously. When Ben buys him some new clothes, Cunxin is upset by the extravagance. “My father works hard all day to earn $50 in one year. Yesterday you spent $500 in one day to buy clothes for me. Why do I need all these clothes?” Much of the film is spent watching Cunxin adapt to western ways.

But the most interesting part of the film takes place in China, where we see the young boys’ harsh training conditions and the drab world of Mao’s China. The boys are taught that the glorious goal of communism is to create a classless society. To that end they all wear matching gray pajamas and experience matching gray poverty. I am reminded of Winston Churchill’s wry quip, “The inherent vice of capitalism is the unequal sharing of blessings; the inherent virtue of socialism is the equal sharing of miseries.”

Yet China is anything but classless. Teachers have absolute authority over the boys. Soldiers have absolute authority over the teachers. Madame Mao dresses in matching gray pajamas, but she arrives at the school in a stretch limousine, and when she doesn’t like the classical ballet she sees performed on the stage, the teacher who defends it is shipped out. Cunxin observes all this with rising consternation.

While living in Texas, Cunxin is required to visit regularly with the Chinese consul, who steels his mind against the temptation and corruption of capitalism. Nevertheless, Cunxin can’t help but see the contrast between the dire poverty of his school days and the wondrous freedom right in front of him. He falls in love with a sweet young ballerina (Amanda Schull), and they engage in a sweet, chaste romance that is refreshing to see in today’s cinema.

When it comes time for Cunxin to return to China, he does not want to go. Stevenson tells him that he must return; after all, that was the agreement from the beginning. He would come for a few months, and then return. If all went well, other students would be allowed to have a turn too. American companies could tour in China as well. If he does not go back, it will damage U.S./Sino relations (and won’t be good for Stevenson’s tour schedule either). A lot rides on the shoulders and ethics of this young dancer who, having tasted the drug of freedom, is now addicted to it and unwilling to live without it.

Cunxin’s family back home is in danger too. If he defects, they might lose everything they have, including their lives. Readers may remember his plight becoming an international incident in 1981, requiring the intervention of then-Vice President George Bush, Sr. The political and emotional tension of this section of the film is powerful and well developed, making it a film well worth watching, even for those who have no interest in ballet.

Nevertheless, what makes this film soar is the beautiful dancing, the intimate love story, and the long-lasting family relationship between Cunxin and his parents, a relationship that remains strong despite their being pulled apart when Cunxin was just a boy.  This film, about the triumph of the human spirit and the sovereignty of the individual, is one you will long remember.

Jo Ann Skousen teaches English literature at Mercy College in Dobbs Ferry, New York, and has served as entertainment editor of Liberty Magazine since 2005. She is the founder and producer of Anthem Film Festival, which will premiere at Freedom Fest in Las Vegas next summer.