Mao’s Last Dancer
2 out of 4 stars
Long before they became forever joined at the hip as financier and debtor, China and the United States sustained a prolonged ideological feud and a constant back-and-forth game of political one-upmanship. It was ultra-conservative communism vs. brazen capitalism and freedom. You had two of the biggest kids in school forever facing off on the playground and boy was it ever fun to watch.
“Mao’s Last Dancer” is a fact-based (underline based) drama about what was perhaps the testiest confrontation between the two world superpowers. Some have called it the human interest equivalent of the Cuban Missile Crisis and while that is a huge stretch, it’s not completely off the mark.
Never content with being second best at anything, the Chinese government — in its usual scorched-earth manner — decided back in the late ’60s that it was time they should produce a ballet star that would be on a par with their other rival, the Soviet Union. He turned out to be Li Cunxin (Chi Cao) and shortly after he became a symbol of national pride, he transformed himself into a national embarrassment and political hot potato.
Directed by the sometimes brilliant, sometimes mediocre Bruce Beresford, “Mao’s Last Dancer” is a film that infrequently provides spiritual inspiration, yet more often resembles a sappy and overlong, made-for-network-TV movie. It wants desperately to be edgy and vital, but far too often is flabby and trite. There’s a good “60 Minutes” story here that has sadly been surrounded by about 110 minutes of fluff and filler.
Making the huge mistake of presenting the first hour out of sequence, Beresford and screenwriter Jan Sardi (adapting Li’s memoir) frequently shift back and forth between Li’s tumultuous childhood in his homeland and his awkward arrival in the U.S. It’s never clear why the Chinese decided to send such a green and impressionable young man like Li to Houston instead of higher profile cities such as New York or Chicago, but that’s what he was and we are given.
Even though Chi is the lead actor and it is Li’s life story, the filmmakers put the emphasis on his American handler/sponsor, the British-born Ben Stevenson (Bruce Greenwood). Director of the Houston Ballet in the ’70s, the overtly fey Stevenson takes an instant, almost creepy liking to Li and the film frequently takes on a decided homoerotic tone. Eventually, a heterosexual love interest is brought to the forefront and becomes the basis for Li’s eventual, perhaps coerced, decision to defect.
While the second half fares slightly better than the first, it’s still laden with tired dramatic crutches and stock racial stereotypes. The audience must wait until the final 15 minutes to be rewarded with anything resembling substance and the meager pay-off seems hardly worth the considerable investment of time.
If you’re looking for something like this only much better, check out “Moscow on the Hudson” starring Robin Williams as a Russian circus employee who defects. (Samuel Goldwyn)