Thursday, 11 March 2010

Mao's Last Dancer: Movie Review

Mao's Last Dancer: Movie Review

Rating: 5/10
Cast: Chi Cao, Bruce Greenwood, Kyle McLachlan, Joan Chen
Director: Bruce Beresford
Based on a memoir by Li Cunxin, Mao's Last Dancer is set in 1970s America and is the true story of Cunxin's journey from the poverty of China to the opulence of the West - via stardom.
Told in flashback and starting with Cunxin's youth, it shows the horrors of living under the Mao regime in China. Li's plucked from a poor school and thrust into a dance academy where he trains as an apprentice.
However, Li's also given the chance to go on tour - despite concerns from the communist leaders - and ends up in Houston. Initially he struggles with the creative - and personal - freedom on show but ends up accepting the lifestyle and becomes a star.
But things get complicated when Li decides he wants to stay in America - and the Chinese government foists exile on him when he makes the wrong decision (as far as they're concerned.)
Mao's Last Dancer is a perfectly fine - if slightly pedestrian - biopic; the ballet scenes are well done and showcase brilliantly the moves of Chi Cao.
Unfortunately though, it suffers from a couple of slightly ropey performances from its lead actor - he's not quite strong enough to pull off the role and at times, it seems a little amateur dramatics; clearly he was chosen for his incredible ballet skills rather than acting. Plus throw in some quite corny dialogue here and there, and it's not much of a recipe for success.
That said, Bruce Greenwood (as the director of the theatre company) and Kyle MacLachlan (as Li's attorney) are solid and provide decent support; but the real star of Beresford's film is his recreation of communist China in the 70s.
It's horrifying, repugnant and shows exactly why the regime was so detested - and thanks to Beresford's restraint in not exploiting it, it feels real. In one of Li's nightmares, he sees his family paraded and shot - it's so wonderfully underplayed and evocative that it's an image which resonates long after the film's over.

Ultimately Mao's Last Dancer aims for inspirational and sadly falls a little short - while it's a well intentioned true story, it doesn't soar as much on the screen as perhaps it should have done.

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