Mao's Last Dancer

2010-08-10 09:13
Mao's Last Dancer

What it's about:

Taken from the clutches of communist China to take part in a cultural exchange programme with an American dance company, Cunxin Li, a talented young dancer, finds himself enthralled by the newly discovered freedom of life in the United States and sets in motion plans to stay there – plans that would do no favours at all to US-China political relations. Based on the Cunxin Li's autobiography.

What we thought:

There is something, I suppose, to be said about solid, unfussy storytelling. Directors like Clint Eastwood and Frank Darabont have made their names on making films where the stories are king, where their own creative visions are almost subservient to the tales that are being told. Mao's Last Dancer may certainly not be in the same league as, say, Unforgiven or The Shawshank Redemption but it certainly comes from the same school of filmmaking. And when you consider how remarkable this true story clearly is, it's easy to understand why the producers of Mao's Last Dancer decided to go this route. Sadly though, director Bruce Beresford may have served his time in the filmmaking trenches but he is no Darabont or Eastwood.

Beresford has built up a fairly large resume since his directorial debut in the early 70s but the last film of his to truly make an impact was Driving Miss Daisy, which is now more than twenty years old. I have very little in the way of real problems with Mao's Last Dancer but I simply don't see it as being any more memorable than anything else he has directed in the last two decades. There's a thin line between unobtrusive, no-nonsense storytelling and plain old blandness and while heavyweights such as Darabont and Eastwood have made careers out of knowing the difference between the two, Beresford, in this particular case at least, treads clumsily all over that line.

His depictions of life under communist rule are generally handled with aplomb, if not necessarily subtlety and Cunxin Li's dance training pleasantly bring to mind similar scenes in trashy martial arts films, but the US-set portions of the film fare less well. Essentially a "fish out of water" tale, Li may talk a lot about the simultaneous seductiveness and alienation of American life but the film fails to truly portray this particular case of culture shock. The sections that explore his efforts to remain in America are effectively drawn to a point but I could never get past the feeling that The West Wing did the same thing better in one of its early episodes.

Most problematic though, is the film's final half hour or so where the length of the book clearly caught up with Beresford and screenwriter Jan Sardi. What we're left with is a final act that plays more like an overextended epilogue where relationships are quickly cast aside as new ones are formed, character developments are skimmed over with breakneck speed and years pass by almost unnoticed. There are fine moments tossed in to be sure – especially the scene between Li and his parents – but it feels like a whole other movie crammed into a thirty-minute time span.                

Dance enthusiasts will likely get a big kick out the film – with good reason. Even I, as someone who is something of a novice in all matters balletic (to say nothing of modern dance), was impressed by the artistry and athletic prowess on display in the film's many dance sequences. The acting, too, is solid throughout but the film undoubtedly soars higher when its focus is less on the thespians in its cast – even seasoned veterans like Bruce Greenwood and Kyle McLachlan - and more on its many talented dancers.

Mao's Last Dancer is at least a very solid alternative to Step Up 3D (out on 13 August) and a treat for the more discerning dance aficionados out there.
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A true story that offers a rare treat for discerning fans of dance.

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