Saturday, March 30, 2013

Mao's Last Dancer

2009, 117 min. PG – not much to report
IMDB says... A drama based on the autobiography by Li Cunxin. At the age of 11, Li was plucked from a poor Chinese village by Madame Mao's cultural delegates and taken to Beijing to study ballet. In 1979, during a cultural exchange to Texas, he fell in love with an American woman. Two years later, he managed to defect and went on to perform as a principal dancer for the Houston Ballet and as a principal artist with the Australian Ballet. Written by Anonymous

The 73rd Virgin says... The biggest grossing movie in Australia in 2009 made it to about 120 screens in the US and grossed less than 5 million. The marketing geniuses take a feel-good ballet/sports/overcoming-every-obstacle movie and screw up the distribution mightily, then Fox blocks all clips on Youtube. Can anybody here play this game?

Based on Li Cunxin’s autobiography of the same name, this is a relatively straightforward and not overly dramatic retelling of events that led to his defection in the early 80s, when he joined the Houston Ballet and married a local dancer. As usually happens with filmed biographies, the timeline is compressed and altered for dramatic purposes. This begins in 1981 as Cunxin gets off the plane in Houston and is met by Ben Stevenson, the director of the ballet, his prima ballerina, and her somewhat clichéd Texan husband complete with cowboy hat and pronounced accent.

There is a brief break-in period as Cunxin moves in with Stevenson and begins to get accustomed to Western life. Bruce Greenwood as the living legend Stevenson is fantastic, with kindly, modulated flamboyancy. A long way from Star Trek. In an early scene Stevenson has to gloss over what the word "chink" means. Cunxin is played by Chi Cao who is, needless to say, a professional dancer from China. Otherwise, most of the other parts are played by genuine dancers and/or Australian actors long associated with Bruce Beresford’s movies.

From there we flashback to Cunxin’s impoverished rural life in cultural Revolution era China. These scenes are also somewhat gentle in their depiction of the poverty and near starvation (his website says they ate tree bark some years). Cunxin is the second oldest of seven sons - they are numbered - and is unusually small and flexible. Officials from the cultural ministry fan out across the country to select 40 boys and girls to become dancers to the greater glory of the revolution and the party, and they find him.

Joan Chen of Twin Peaks fame and Tai-Pan infamy is de-glamorized – as much as you can de-glamorize Joan Chen – as his mother. Her teeth are too good; otherwise she is unrecognizable with a subservient, bowing, hesitant demeanor.

The movie takes its time showing Cunxin’s progress through the system, from a local capital all the way to Beijing. There are the requisite scenes of his maladaptation to being away from home and his chafing under the abusive teaching style of Teacher Gao. Teacher Chan however, sees something in the skinny child and takes the enormous political risk of giving him a VHS tape of the Russian defector Baryshnikov. After that he is determined to develop the physique that will allow him to “fly”. In the semi-obligatory musical montage he attaches weights to his legs and begins the practice of jumping up stair wells four steps at a time. Sports movie buffs will be in their comfortable heaven.

The best scenes involve the arrival of the stern female official (Madame Mao, I guess) who politely admires the dancing ability of the young troop but pointedly asks, “where are the rifles?” So we are given a glimpse of some of the outrageously funny, party-approved revolutionary ballet of the 70s, with skilled dancers making enormous leaps while pointing rifles at the enemies of the party and the revolution. Teacher Chan is visibly concerned that ballet and politics do not mix well. Teacher Chan is soon led away to a van while Cunxin watches.

With the death of Mao, and the purging of the Gang of Four, and the reemergence of Deng Xiaoping, China is ready to re-enter the world and this leads to a call for the dancer to best represent the party and its political principles to the starving, backward and underdeveloped West.

Now back in America the story may proceed as described.

Eventually there will be a 21-hour standoff at the Chinese consulate in Houston. Kyle McLachlan kinda moves like a Texan and his accent is good enough as immigration attorney Charles Foster. There are several politely tense scenes at the consulate; one in which Cunxin is forcibly dragged away to a holding chamber while his supporters are left in the lobby making frantic phone calls to local judges and politicians to secure his release. One can feel some sympathy for the embassy staff who know that their careers are going to be severely limited, if not ended, by a high-profile defection, and Stevenson is markedly ambivalent about the defection because he knows he will be blamed.

The yards of text above might lead one to believe there isn't much dancing. In fact, there's a bunch of it. Director Beresford respects the audience enough to show the astonishing physicality of the dancing from the middle distance with a limited number of close-ups. That’s all we really need to appreciate the art and conditioning involved. On additional viewings for this review I realize that it’s just so nice to watch without all manner of close-up emoting.

There is a workmanlike quality to some of the acting surrounding Cunxin’s first marriage, and the big showbiz crisis when he has to dance Die Fledermaus on 3-hours notice.

The movie is fair to his young and ambitious dancer-wife, who understandably doesn’t want to be in his wake or treated like a housfrau, and is so even-handed that the end title card even tells us what she’s up to nowadays.

The Houston exterior locations are real and are not jumbled or falsely presented. I suppose I could take offense that Judge Woodrow Seals is played by long-time Australian star Jack Thompson, but why should I care?

Since I haven’t read the book it’s not fair for me to proclaim certain parts of the ending to be hokey or maudlin. Sometimes real life is hokey as well. A little more irritating is the use of that hoary old device, the dream sequence, to describe Cunxin’s fear that his parents and family are being persecuted back in China. We are never given a clear idea as to whether this actually happened.

It was around this time that Deng Xiaoping appeared at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo in a cowboy hat. This was long before Tiananmen Square and the future of Sino-American relations looked bright rather than just business-like and mutually suspicious.

I’m a little concerned that the scene showing Cunxin and his Australian dancer second wife dancing for the peasants back in his home village  - while striking a pose similar to the old party line ballerinas in front of the red Chinese flag - carries with it the slight odor of compromise in order to get this movie made with Chinese cooperation. Is it hokey or something worse? This is a wild speculative accusation I know.

The web community seems to split into two camps: “conventionally made”, “made-for-TV”, “plodding”, etc, vs “a lot more entertaining than Black Swan.”
The curiously named blog, Ebert Does It Better, sums up the second camp:
“In stark contrast to the dancing portrayed as an assault on the senses and soul that is Black Swan, this movie reveals that even in parts of the world where the politics may darken the human experience, artistic expression can bloom from the soul.”
I haven’t gotten around to Black Swan, but this is a very pleasing, artistically satisfying, and rather happy movie.

The great James Lileks has posted several cards from the Chinese ballet that Richard Nixon had to sit through when he visited China in 1972. This is my favorite:

Says the card: “Party representative Hung Cang-ching teaches the fighters that revolution is not a matter of taking personal revenge but of emancipating all mankind. Her class consciousness raised, Wu Ching-hua follows the company commander in energetically practicing marksmanship and grenade throwing.”
Bruce Beresford, of course, made some big popular movies like Tender Mercies, Driving Miss Daisy and Breaker Morant, and the sadly overlooked masterpiece Black Robe (to your left in The Virg’s Top 20). Joan Chen has directed a couple movies.

I’m rather disappointed in myself in that, having lived in the Houston area for 25 years, I was about 15 minutes into this before I realized it was based on a real character and I should know who he is. I’ve only attended the Houston ballet once, and that was an afternoon matinee of the Nutcracker, so I probably never saw Li Cunxin or his Aussie wife Mary McKendry dance. But I do remember them – now, anyway.

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