I recently bought a “previously viewed” copy of the film Mao’s Last Dancer from my local Blockbuster’s outlet. I had been intrigued by this film when I saw the trailers because, admittedly, the lead actor/dancer was very cute, but also because I had been a student in China during the last stages of Moa Zedong’s so-called Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution and was thus familiar with some of the film’s political and cultural underpinnings.
The story goes like this: Li Cunxin, a young boy from a very poor peasant family in Shandong Province, is suddenly plucked from his classroom by a group of strange men, put through a very painful “audition,” and as a result is chosen to attend the national ballet school in Beijing, which is at the time under the sponsorship of Chairman Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing. The training is relentless and brutal, but ultimately Li falls in love with ballet and becomes a superlative dancer. When the Cultural Revolution ends and China opens her doors to the world, he is selected to receive three months training at the Houston Ballet, where after an initial period of cultural shock, he thrives, both artistically and emotionally.
The adult Li is played by dancer/actor Chi Cao.
In Houston, Li falls in love with and marries an American dancer, deciding that he is going to stay in America with his new wife. When he goes to the Chinese consulate in Houston to announce his plan, he is basically kidnapped and held until political pressure forces the Chinese authorities to release him. Upon his release he is told that he may never step on Chinese soil again and will never be allowed to see or even contact his family again. He is devastated but is determined to become a world-class artist. Soon he is offered a permanent contract at the Houston Ballet and a successful career is assured.
As China gradually opens up even further, there is hope that he will be able to see his parents again. The film ends with Li as principal dancer in a performance of “The Rite of Spring” and the surprise appearance of his parents in the audience. Tears flowed on both sides of the TV screen.
A friend who watched this movie with us commented dismissively throughout and afterward that the film was “predictable” and “schmaltzy” although she did like it overall. At one time I would have agreed with her and would have been equally disparaging. Now, however, I understand two things that I never understood before. First, this is a film about an incredible human journey, one that most of us will never choose or be required to take. Mao’s Last Dancer is in fact based on the autobiography of Li Cunxin, so the film is depicting real events in a real life. Even if we could have seen from at least one very obvious hint that the dancer’s parents were going to show up at his performance, this foreknowledge would not have diminished in any way the emotional impact of that moment, given what we know about the pain of separation in a Chinese family and the tremendous sacrifices Li made for his art.
Second, as a rather amateur and bumbling screenwriter, I know how difficult it is to write a credible script, even when it based on a true story. What details of the story do we include? How do we arrange them for the best dramatic effect? How do we make the dialogue cinematically realistic?
In the end, I think this movie is a small triumph. The story is touching and inspiring; the dancing is awesome and beautiful. And Chi Cao is never hard to look at.