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Born into a peasant family in a Chinese village during Mao’s Cultural Revolution, Li Cunxin (as child Huang Wen Bin, as teenager Chengwu Guo, as adult Chi Cao) is selected by Communist Party officials for special training at the dance academy in Beijing. He grows into a talented and powerful young dancer, making a cultural exchange visit to the Houston ballet, where the artistic director Ben Stevenson (Bruce Greenwod) recognizes his potential. The student soon becomes a star, and he discovers that America is not the dark, downtrodden place that was the propaganda dealt out by the party in his village school. Despite his concerns for the safety of his family, he decides he should stay in America – but the Chinese Government doesn’t agree.

Review by Louise Keller:
The irony of Li Cunxin's unique and amazing story is that its political backdrop is in fact the springboard for his success on the international ballet stage. Not only is his success the result of Mao's Communist regime, it also comes in spite of it. This is a story that has a little bit of everything. Politics raises its red flag throughout, but this rags to riches story with a fish-out-of water element also embraces a sweet romance, a fundamental love for family and a bitter-sweet dream that is fulfilled despite extraordinary odds. These dramatic elements coupled with the artistic, theatrical and musical make it an ideal project for director Bruce Beresford, who delivers an engrossing and profoundly moving film that hits the emotional bullseye multiple times.

Of course, in adapting Li Cunxin's best-selling autobiography, the challenge facing Beresford and screenwriter Jan Sardi was to find a dancer with technical brilliance as well as presence, charisma and language skills to portray the central character. Chi Cao from the Birmingham Royal Ballet was selected to play the adult Li, with two younger actors (Chengwu and Huang Wen Bin) as the teenager trained at the Beijing Arts Academy and the young boy taken at a tender age from his peasant family from Shandong Province. The roles at different ages morph seamlessly into each other; it is a testament to Sardi's storytelling and Beresford's direction that we engage with all three actors. Needless to say, the demands on Chi Cao are by far the greatest -emotionally and physically - and he is splendid.

The film begins in Houston, Texas in 1981, when a wide-eyed Li, speaking only stumbling English, arrives from Beijing as a cultural exchange student but ends up a star. Bruce Greenwood is a sound choice as Ben, the choreographer (Li's host), whose professional visit to China the previous year, makes way for this cultural exchange. In flashback, we learn of the circumstances that bring Li to America, how the Chinese Government takes him, the 6th child, from his parents (Joan Chen, Wang Shuang Bao) to learn to be trained as a dancer. 'Build up your strength and soon you'll be able to fly,' his teacher tells him but there is conflict when communism and politics are married into the ballet art form. Especially when it is Madame Mao's Beijing Dance Academy and she insists of politics being at the forefront of every production.

Soon Li is getting satisfaction not only on stage and Amanda Schull has loads of appeal as Liz, the dancer with the delicate ankle who wins Li's heart. The dance sequences are fabulous and the crescendo builds and builds as we watch Li's triumphant performance on the biggest night of the Houston arts calendar. Then the story changes directions into one about defection and political kidnapping, with its own ramifications. But there is more, and despite the story's often melancholic tone, there's a rousing two-tier finale when ours are not the only tears of joy that are shed. Additionally, an even greater dream is fulfilled and we are there for yet another rousing performance with an impromptu and unlikely stage and a special audience.

Beresford excels at bringing all the elements together in this splendid and ambitious film that presses all our emotional buttons. Christopher Gordon's rousing score, Peter James' wonderful cinematography and Harold Pinter's immaculate production design all add greatly as we become immersed in Li's inspiring story.

Review by Andrew L. Urban:
Based as it is on a true story of a real life, Mao's Last Dancer is far more complex and layered than a fictional narrative might be, and satisfyingly so, with a great payload of emotional release. Bruce Beresford engineers Jan Sardi's excellent adaptation of the memoir with finesse, delivering that emotional climax with power and great timing. And the emotional peak of this story is not that Li Cunxin (Chi Cao) makes his fabulous entry into the world of western ballet; it is his private story and the realisation of a different, even more important dream.

The underlying story of a young peasant boy plucked from obscurity and given a chance to make use of his natural talents in the big wide world is exciting enough for any film, but added to it are the layers created by the barriers he has to overcome off stage. The biggest of these is the Chinese Communist Party, which disapproves of his desire to stay in America. But he also has to deal with a romantic relationship and his fears for his family.

Chinese born dancer Chi Cao is excellent as the adult Li Cunxin, his own background not too dissimilar to Li's; but while we expect this talented young dancer (resident with the Birmingham Ballet) to shine in the dancing scenes, it's a marvellous surprise to accept him totally as Li and click into his emotional space, especially for a moving finale.

Bruce Greenwood is outstanding as Ben Stevenson, the gay (but not camp) artistic director who puts his faith in Li for a crucial performance (but more generally, too) and Amanda Schull as Liz, the girl with whom Li first falls in love. I also like Kyle MacLachlan's economical but incisive characterisation of Texan lawyer Charles Foster, and all the supporting cast are excellent.

Christopher Gordon's terrific, multi-coloured and delightful score with its light but sure touch and Graeme Murphy's stunning choreography add considerably to the film's pleasures. Herbert Pinter's design is so good it's invisible and Peter James excels himself with cinematography that subtly adjusts as we shift from one place and time to another. Bruce Beresford has worked with this crew before and it shows. Mao's Last Dancer is a mature work from a master filmmaker relishing his work.

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(Aust, 2009)

CAST: Bruce Greenwood, Kyle MacLachlan, Joan Chen, Chi Cao, Wang Shuang Bo, Chengwu Guo, Aden Young, Hunag Wen Bin, Camilla Vergotis, Penne Hackforth-Jones, Jack Thompson

PRODUCER: Jane Scott (China coproducer Geng Ling)

DIRECTOR: Bruce Beresford

SCRIPT: Jan Sardi (memoir by Li Cunxin)


EDITOR: Mark Warner

MUSIC: Christopher Gordon


OTHER: Graeme Murphy (Choreography)

RUNNING TIME: 117 minutes



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