CINEMA: by Ian H. McDougall (reviewer)News Weekly
"Deeply troubling" rags-to-riches story: Mao's Last Dancer (rated PG)
, October 31, 2009
Amid the blast of feel-good publicity and reviews for Bruce Beresford's film Mao's Last Dancer, it may seem churlish to question the credentials of this rags-to-riches story of a boy plucked from rural poverty to become a renowned ballet dancer. Yet this film is deeply troubling.
|Young Li Cunxin (Huang Wen Bin)|
in Mao's Last Dancer.
Was it merely coincidence, for instance, that the premiere of Mao's Last Dancer
coincided with the Stalinist celebrations of the 60th anniversary of the Communist Party of China's seizure of power?
In all stories of this kind, my reference point is the East Europeans I went to school with. They were refugees from Communism, a mixed bag of Balts, Czechs, Poles and Hungarians.
They had neither the desire nor the ability to return to the national prison camps they had left behind, because when they left, the gates had swung shut behind them. They did not say they would never return.
Some of them did - after the disintegration of the Soviet's empire in Eastern Europe.
What about Li Cunxin (pronounced lee tsun shin
)? Li was a pupil in an impoverished Chinese school when by a fluke he was selected to enter the Beijing Dance Academy. Poverty was not uncommon in Maoist China. In fact, apart from the Communist elite, everyone was poor. Being rich meant owning a bicycle.
Li did his training during the Cultural Revolution, the outbreak of national lunacy fostered by Mao Tse-tung as a means of defeating his rivals in the Communist Party such as Deng Xiao-ping. Chief among Mao's instruments was his wife, Chiang Ching, a former actress. Chiang Ching took a special interest in the arts, which during the Cultural Revolution were reduced to brainless conformity with the latest ideological fad.
As the film makes clear, anyone who valued art for its own sake was mercilessly persecuted, including one of Li's more independently-minded teachers. The only purpose of art was to serve the revolution.
Li was obsessive about becoming a better dancer. He pushed himself mercilessly to be the best dancer he could. At first, he was homesick and missed his beloved mother. As the years went on, he was transformed from being a weak young boy to being an outstanding performer.
Li's big break came when he was selected to study with the Houston Ballet. His superiors judged him to be politically reliable. Li, being an intelligent person, soon realised that the stories he had been fed in Beijing about the impoverishment of America and the superiority of China were untrue. Li is stunned and angry when his American host casually buys him clothes worth $500 so he will not stand out as a country bumpkin. As Li points out, this is as much as his father would earn in 10 years.
Li likes America. He is told by an immigration lawyer that the only way he can stay in America is if he marries an American woman. As it happens, he falls for an American dancer and she falls for him. They get married. After some adventures in which the Chinese consul-general in Houston tries to ship him back to China against his will, he stays in America.
The marriage later breaks up. He eventually becomes a principal dancer with the Australian Ballet in Melbourne, and marries an Australian ballerina. After his dancing career ends, he transforms himself into a Collins Street stockbroker. He is forgiven by the Chinese authorities and is reunited with his mother.
This film is more about love and dancing than politics - it's about young romantic love and the love of Li for his dear Ma. As his mother, Joan Chen plays a cameo role that almost steals the movie. The adult Li is played by Chinese-born British dancer Chi Cao, who is from all reports a good dancer, but rather wooden as Li.
My experience in ballet is limited to a fortnight's stint as a stage-hand for Pineapple Poll
, where my main duty was to fire the toy cannon. Although it did not markedly enhance my technical understanding of ballet, my season backstage did teach me that dancers live in a very small and protected environment, and that they are startlingly naïve about the world around them. Thus, it is feasible that initially Li did not understand the political implications of his defection from China.
On the other hand, he has learned enough now to have a career as a motivational speaker. He must understand that this movie is an implicit endorsement of a dictatorship that continues to rule through repression and terror.
China is a lot better now than it was during the Cultural Revolution. As for being among the 20 foreign movies that are officially allowed to screen in Chinese cinemas, I can only wish the producers "good luck". The Chinese will see this film, because through the miracles of modern intellectual piracy, every movie Hollywood makes is available in China within days of its release on the Internet.