Director Bruce Beresford lives in a word of extremes and absolutes. In his new biopic Mao’s Last Dancer, as in his last history-based film, 2002’s Irish weepie Evelyn, the state is a vast evil, and the quailing, good-hearted people who stand up to it are innocents abroad. In Mao, it snows when sad things happen, nightmares are punctuated by crashes of thunder and doors bursting open in the wind, and any weakness can be overcome via training montage. It’s artless, obvious, and at times insultingly exaggerated. And yet the real-life story of Chinese ballet dancer Li Cunxin, based on his autobiography, is often dramatic enough to win its way past the silly trappings.
Exactly like the recent thriller Salt, Mao’s Last Dancer is the story of a child taken from his parents in early childhood, raised by the fanatical devotees of a communist state, force-fed a steady diet of propaganda (America apparently doesn’t have sunlight, and exists in a state of perpetual near-darkness. Who knew?) , and trained with a single goal in mind. In Salt, that goal was infiltration, but in Mao, it’s ballet. Chosen for his flexibility and his admirable ancestry—three generations of rural peasants, with no rich “class enemies” among them—Li is nonetheless mocked for his emotional vulnerability and physical weakness. But he’s just an inspiring story and a training montage away from becoming his class’ most spirited dancer, which leads him to Houston on an exchange program. There—unlike Salt’s lifelong devoted fanatics—he takes just three months to decide he’s freer in America and that he wants to defect. Naturally, the Chinese government sets out to prevent this with the same raw, clumsily evil gestures they use to address all other issues.
Chi Cao plays the adult Li as a socially awkward but passionate, profoundly talented dancer, and Beresford devotes long stretches of Mao to his practice and performances. Naturally, these are far more moving than the overwrought devices Beresford uses to tell his story, which include heavy use of nested flashbacks and a motivational metaphor about an archer, whom Li dramatically visualizes while an uncomfortable audience waits long moments for him to begin to dance. When he finally does, it’s an explosive, winning revelation, in part because Beresford doesn’t keep pausing the action to tell his audience what to feel and what to think. The film could use a lot more of that kind of discretion.