Here’s what I like about film: It can show me things I wouldn’t normally see, like the ballet. I’ve never been to one. I have only a cursory knowledge of what goes into a pirouette. I couldn’t contribute a single thing to a conversation about “Swan Lake.” What I know of Baryshnikov pretty well begins and ends with his stint as Carrie’s love interest on the final season of “Sex and the City.”
In “Mao’s Last Dancer,” Baryshnikov is described by Chinese officials as a filthy defector. Another thing I don’t know a whole lot about is Chinese society under Mao Zedong. I know that a lot of people in North America like to call their cats Chairman Meow, thinking that they’re being playfully ironic in naming their cat after a dictator. There is a reference to this Western phenomenon in the film, voiced by a mustachioed white Texan in the waiting room of the Chinese Consulate in Houston.
Let’s face it. A lot of us are ignorant when it comes to the complex histories of nations, including our own. Our popular culture is tailored to the here and now. We have the freedom to be clueless. Many sequences in “Mao’s Last Dancer” vividly and emotionally detail the conditions in China under 1970s Communist rule, where young minds are instructed to further the cause of the party in all endeavours. The capitalist system is weak and will crumble, a group of students is told. We’re meant to recoil at the totalitarianism of it all, but so too are generations in the West raised under propaganda espousing freedom as a guiding principle of a condition of superiority.
It’s the small touches in Jan Sardin’s adaptation of ballet dancer Li Cunxin’s autobiography that build our sympathy for Cunxin (Chi Cao) as he leaves his homeland to set foot on American soil. Cunxin sits in the consulate and is indoctrinated by an official concerning the “temptations” of American society, prematurely correcting his sensibilities and keeping them in line for the good of the party. It’s hard to imagine such an exchange taking place in the heartland of America, and involving someone so in tune with the flow of their artistic identity such as Cunxin.
The look at the extremes of the role art plays in ideology is what makes “Mao’s Last Dancer” a powerful docudrama, its contrasts an examination of art’s simultaneous ability to discipline and to heal. The film masterfully balances beautiful ballet performances with scenes of Cunxin’s development as a dancer under strict tutelage and the appraisal of uniformed surveyors, who hold off on applause during a breathtaking rehearsal because the themes of the dance don’t conform to the aims of the communist movement. An instructor (Zhang Su) who shows the slightest sign of sympathy to Cunxin’s questioning of authority is made a martyr for freedom of speech, the same freedom that shocks the suited Cunxin in a Houston discotheque, packed full of uninhibited women and good ol’ boys able to talk crap about the president.
Heavy-handed the material may be, but it knows exactly what chords to hit in its ambitions of an East meets West epic. I was charmed by its moments of small, genial humour, brought forward in Cunxin’s imperfect hold on the English language and his fish-out-of-water approach to American customs, both those worthy of touting and those thoroughly ugly. Bruce Greenwood gives himself over to the role of company director and landlord Ben Stevenson in a performance full of convincing mannerisms and grace of presence. A scene in which he explains to Cunxin the meaning of the word “chink” is delivered so perfectly that it’s hard to fault the pablum.
Rightfully hired for his skills as a dancer, Cao isn’t a particularly agile actor. Some scenes in which he’s asked to play passionate in dialogue ring false. But “Mao’s Last Dancer” succeeds via the intense power of its themes, leaving some leeway for more simplistic reenactments of the melodrama that typically surrounds Cunxin’s relations with Liz Mackey (Amanda Schull), a marriage of convenience that allowed Cunxin to stay in America at the cost of never seeing his family in China again. The execution of a scene toward the end of the film in which Cunxin breaks down on stage is heart-wrenching and well crafted, suited to its earlier moments and utterly proud of its schmaltz.
And the ballet. Director Bruce Beresford, who has the dubious distinction of being the only director in the last 78 years whose film (“Driving Miss Daisy”) won a best picture Oscar without also seeing so much as a nomination for its director, knows exactly why the ballet may fascinate the layman: It’s the physical form of the human being, expressing himself freely through art, that reveals the depth of pain and loss contained within. The film may pose new arguments concerning Beresford’s racial politics, but there’s no doubt that he makes sure that when Cunxin nails his jetés, it plays to the back of every heart in the crowd.
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