Mao's Last Dancer Satisfies Asian American Audiences

The movie version of Mao’s Last Dancer deserves our admiration and support. The film has everything we Asian Americans have clamored for: a charismatic Asian male hero whose professional and love lives defy stereotypical racial roles, a candid look at American ambivalence toward Asian men, an intimidate view of the turbulent relationship between the U.S. and China, a warm depiction of an intensely loving Asian family, even an insider’s look at the world of prestige arts. The fact that the film is based on an autobiography elevates it from the merely entertaining and moving to the inspiring.

As a boy of eleven Li Cunxin is plucked from an impoverished peasant family to join the Beijing Dance Academy at a time when China was eager to assert itself as a cultural power. The “Mao” of the title refers to Madame Mao, the ambitious wife of Chairman Mao who made herself China’s ruthless cultural Czarina and personally oversees the Dance Academy.

Li Cunxin (played by the charismatic dancer Chi Cao) distinguishes himself by his intense dedication to ballet and is singled out to become a summer exchange student at the Houston Ballet Company. While in Houston Li falls in love with Elizabeth Mackey (Amanda Schull), a dancer hoping to land a role with the Company. Li also falls in love with life in America, with its exhilarating freedom and his surprising success as a dancer under the sympathetic tutelage of the Houston Ballet’s acclaimed artistic director Ben Stevenson (Bruce Greenwood).

In a bid to avoid his inevitable return to China, Li and Elizabeth rush into marriage. When Houston’s Chinese consul learns of Li’s intentions, he locks up the dancer with the intention of forcibly sending him back to China. That precipitates a 21-hour international incident during which the FBI surrounds the consulate and Vice President Bush engages in direct negotiations with China’s Foreign Minister. Li is freed, but China revokes his citizenship and bans him from returning to see his family in Shandong Province.

Li makes good use of his new life in America with a 15-year career as a principal dancer and star of the Houston Dance Academy. During this time China opens up and frees its citizens to control their own lives, allowing Li to reunite with his family and the teachers of his youth.

It’s hard to imagine a more ideal choice to play Li Cunxin than Chi Cao, a dancer whose life parallels Li’s in key respects. Not only did Chi train at the Beijing Dance Academy like the young Li, he also attained success in the West as a longtime principal dancer with the Birmingham Royal Ballet. More importantly, Chi’s physical power and beauty matches Li’s. Some of the film’s most moving scenes are dance sequences recreating Li’s early triumphs with the Houston Ballet. Chi’s expressive face squeezes maximum mileage from the pleasures of discovering life in America, first love, early artistic success and an emotional reunion.

Acclaimed Australian director Bruce Beresford (Driving Miss Daisy) avoids making Dancer appear to be a sanitized tale of the enlightened West triumphing over a benighted East. His Maoist China of Li’s early life contains fair-minded teachers working against powerfully dehumanizing political forces. Beresford’s pains at recreating other times and places turn scenes of Maoist China into many of the film’s most engrossing moments. His Houston of the early 80s has the feel of a trip down memory lane. Audiences squirm as Li asks Stevenson about being called “chink” on the street and the Houston Ballet staff expresses ambivalence about a Chinese man dancing the lead.

A rich supporting cast includes Joan Chen who is thoroughly convincing as Li’s self-sacrificing mother. Bruce Greenwood deftly negotiates the role of a sympathetic mentor who is also an artistic director with ambitions far larger than the career of any protege. Kyle Maclachlan portrays a well-connected southern lawyer caught up in a firestorm with more heat than his garden-variety immigration cases.

Mao’s Last Dancer is now playing in selected theaters in major metro areas across the U.S.