Faux Pas de Deux
Bruce Beresford several times instances “rags to riches . . . of epic proportions” to describe biopic Mao’s Last Dancer. It is that, from ballet star Li Cunxin’s autobiography but, like the director’s repeated phrase, is also so much cliché, weighted with mediocre acting, that dance devotees will find little inspiration in the short performance sequences.
The prime obstacle to realizing Australian Jan Sardi’s filmscript -- Li, second wife Mary McKendry (Australian ballerina Camilla Vergotis) and their three children live Down Under-- lay in finding a young Chinese “big ballerino” speaker of English and Mandarin available in the West. It was retired Li himself who located a perfect fit in England. “A Chinese Errol Flynn,” Chi Cao is handsome, with “a beautiful body” noted even within the movie’s world of athletic figures. While appropriately boyish in his film début, however, this Birmingham Royal Ballet principal has difficulties, because of his very fluency, in portraying a young man uprooted from one culture into an entirely alien one whose language he does not speak well. But then, the whole cast seem to be caricaturing, from fey gestures to Texas accents to People’s Republic officials at home and in diplomatic postings abroad.
A corollary conundrum involved getting permission to film within China and, once there, scouting locations in which to recreate rural and urban scenes of decades ago. Exaggeratedly “expecting carloads of police to arrive” to bundle them off, the crew also needed to tread a fine line in depictions of Chairman Mao’s era and of his soon-disgraced and -imprisoned widow, non-person Madame Mao, Jiang Qing. Making do with surviving hamlets, unused factories and school buildings and only minimal historical shots, the film achieves period flavor through old-fashioned color stock, with its briefest of recreated propaganda operas comparing favorably with the real thing of Yan-Ting Yuen’s Yang Ban Xi: The Eight Model Works.
On the merest of chances which was not to occur until a village teacher called officials back, the boy Li (Huang Wenbin) is whisked from hardscrabble peasantry, selected from among literal millions, to wind up at a ballet school in the capital. Thus early on the theme is introduced of whether he will ever again be embraced by parents (Joan Chen and Wang Shuangbao as “Niang” and “Dia,” antiquated for “Mommy” and “Daddy”), five brothers at home and one already in state service in Tibet.
Lonely like others chosen to study, and the only one shown to cry at night, he is berated as physically weak by Beijing Arts Academy Teacher Gao (Gang Jiao) but encouraged by older, prescient Teacher Chan (Su Zhang). The now-teenager (Chengwu Guo) works out to build muscle and works to improve split-jump technique, and as a young man is noticed by visiting Ben Stevenson (Bruce Greenwood) and asked to be allowed to return with him for three months’ work with the Houston Ballet.
Larded with flashbacks, the story is now of Li’s introduction to Western ways and rise to popular stardom. There are obligatory humorous cheap shots about acculturation and racism, but except for occasional reminders and a bad dream about the unknown fate of the family left behind, the climb is not steep, at least not successfully portrayed as such.
Whatever the veto rights given Beijing censors, life there and consular representatives in this country are painted in unflattering cartoon strokes, with perhaps the fuzzy “coda [that] China is now a progressive and dynamic society” pulling the wool over their eyes.
Li understandably left behind a wistful dance partner in China and, eyed by more than one worldly danseuse here, is delighted with virgin Elizabeth (San Francisco Ballet’s Amanda Schull), a less gifted aspirant with a bum ankle. His government rules that he is too impressionable for further exposure to capitalist decadence and refuses an extension of permission to remain, precipitating a decision and confrontation that are film-played out in the Consulate-General in the style of the hammiest of spy-spoof movies.
After a trite teary “VIP” appearance at the Wortham Theater in 1986 and, three years later, an impromptu pas de deux appreciated by Shandong provincials, end-titles fill in real-life fates. The seconds-long printed future is the equal of the preceding two-hour picture of the past.
(Released by Samuel Goldwyn Films and ATO Pictures; rated “PG” for a brief violent image, some sensuality, language and incidental smoking.)