During the Cultural Revolution, Chairman Mao Zedong closed China's doors to the world, alleging that capitalism disrupted the nation's communist principles. The establishment of the Red Guards witch-hunt, staffed by a cult of young Maoists, marked the start of a terrifying era in Chinese history. If a villager reported his neighbor as anti-communist, the accused would be publicly shamed or simply vanish. Records of that period have since been destroyed, though it is known that China was training select children in arts and performance for Madame Mao's cultural program for propaganda.
Li Cunxin's 2003 novel, "Mao's Last Dancer," documents Li's life from being born to poverty near the city of Qingdao to being hand-picked by Madame Mao's cultural advisors and "honored" to join the state's Beijing Dance Academy. For a poor village boy with six siblings, this was an opportunity to get an education, learn how to read and write, and have a meaningful life for the communist cause. A wide-eyed, malnourished child, Li was a star communist student. When asked what he wanted to do when he grew up, Li answered, "I want to join the Red Guards." At that time, China slowly opened its doors to showcase its talent and political superiority. They permitted Ben Stevenson, director of the Houston Ballet Company, to teach two semesters at the Beijing Dance Academy in a controlled environment. Stevenson saw the talent of Li and offered him a scholarship to learn ballet for a summer in America. China agreed to allow Li, set up as a cultural exchange student, to go to Houston as their ambassador. Seduced by disco and a woman, Li later caused an international incident by trying to defect to America.
Bringing Li's biography onto the screen was no easy feat. The film was directed by Australian director Bruce Beresford, known for the Oscar-winning film "Driving Miss Daisy," and written by screenwriter Jan Sardi, known for "The Notebook" and "Shine." The clichés of exposing an innocent village boy to the attraction of American shopping malls and discos makes for cheap laughs at best.
It seems that Sardi was seduced by doing a period recreation of communist China, matched with Beresford's choice of using vibrant, almost cartoonish color tones that were clearly inspired by Mao's propaganda posters. They do bring forth a visually appealing historical portrayal of the mysterious land of the Orient, on top of showcasing the magnificence of the Great Wall of China, yet the contrast with America falls a bit flat. The discos, out-of-control youths and freedom-loving Texans seem all too clichéd and sloppily executed. Little effort has been made to portray Li's initial political duty to promote Communist principles to be superior, or to show his spiral down into the allure of American capitalism and free society. It seemed Beresford and Sardi decided that an American disco was enough to change young Li's mind about his lifetime of ideologies.
Beginning the film with Li's (played by dancer Chi Cao) introduction to the capitalist country, you can feel Sardi's screenplay rushing to get back to the flashbacks of Li's life in China. The script feels like it is written only to lead the audience back to Li's childhood, where the Communist life is given more intrigue than the story of a Chinese village boy in the West. This race to flashbacks makes for a confusing story structure, so much so that when Li defects, it leaves you unconvinced.
The awkward cultural-clash moments will provoke a few "shake-my-head" laughs, such as when Li's Texan girlfriend Elizabeth (Amanda Schull) declares herself a virgin and asks Li if he knows what sex is. Then there is a convenient flashback cut-scene in order to explain why Li would refuse gifts from Stevenson, as it is against Communist principle. A hint of nostalgia in Beresford's portrayal of America in the ‘80s – disco-dancing, casual and fun-loving Americans – also bears the question of whether this allure of the great American life is farcically outdated for viewers in 2009.
The dancing is spectacular: Li poised confidently in a paso doble stance, his ribbed naked body leaping into the air as he reaches out for his maiden in distress. The true tear-jerking moment is when Li's parents come to see his performance after being banished from visiting China for seven years. While this moment truly evokes emotions from viewers, it also feels like a staged and oddly unexplained moment when Li has feared his defection would lead to the retaliation against his parents. The scene felt like there was an edit somewhere, to leave what happened to his parents in China ambiguous, and it almost feels like an edit to appease China's movie censors.
The film is visually appealing, especially in the efforts gone into recreating Mao's China, but there is no deeper layer you can peel into. It promises a unique story, yet leaves many questions unanswered. Viewers seeking to have an intellectual discussion of Mao's China are warned: the film does not leave room for discussion; rather, it shows you what to expect. From easily impressed villagers to adoring American fans with minimal problems accepting a Chinese dancer into their arms, it seems that the political drama in Li's life is really not that much of an obstacle at all. Li's final stance frozen in a pas de deux breaks the trance of the enigmatic dance he just performed in front of the wide-eyed villagers. The freeze frame reminds you that you are back in Beresford's obsession with the Chinese propaganda posters. Mao's Last Dancer, the film, after all that, is just style over story.