'Mao's Last Dancer' twirls with ballet banality

Chi Cao, Camilla Vergotis. Chi plays a Chinese dancer who visited the United States and wanted to stay.
Chi Cao, Camilla Vergotis. Chi plays a Chinese dancer who visited the United States and wanted to stay.
Posted: August 20, 2010

Fans of classical ballet most likely will emerge from Mao's Last Dancer full of good feelings about Swan Lake and the graceful athleticism of the movie's star, Chi Cao, a Chinese-born dancer and principal of the Birmingham Royal Ballet.

All others beware: This based-on-real-life tale of artistic aspirations and international politics is packed with more corn than an Iowa silo.

Bruce Beresford, the veteran director of such Oscar fare as Tender Mercies and Driving Miss Daisy, apparently didn't know when to quit, overplaying the already hokey script at every turn. And at every pirouette and pliƩ.

Adapted from Li Cunxin's autobiography of the same name, Mao's Last Dancer follows a peasant boy (he is "Sixth Son," out of seven) taken from his parents' home in the dusty Chinese outback and trained at the prestigious Beijing Dance Academy. (Li is played by two children and a teenager before Chi steps in.) He is a remarkably gifted young dancer with the potential to become one of the People's Republic's cultural stars.

And then, after Mao's death, as relations between the communist East and the capitalist West begin to thaw, Li is invited to a summer exchange program at the Houston Ballet.

Under the wing of its artistic director, Ben Stevenson (Bruce Greenwood), Li, armed with his Chinese-English dictionary and strict cautions from his government about "evil" Americans, experiences wave upon wave of culture shock: the language, the food, the discos, the women.

In a Star Is Born moment, Li steps into the spotlight when the company's lead dancer is injured just hours before a performance.

Li meets a pretty Texan, Liz (Amanda Schull), and begins a romance - a liaison unbeknownst to Stevenson. (Li tells his host he's been out at night watching kung fu movies.)

All is well until Chinese officials decide Li has been in the States long enough. But Li, having tasted fame and fallen for Liz, wishes to stay.

"I dance better here, because I feel more . . . free," he explains.

A lawyer (Kyle MacLachlan) is called in.

A meeting at the Chinese consulate is arranged. And an international incident ensues, with Li held prisoner inside the consulate walls.

Chi Cao, in his first film role, can be forgiven for the lack of nuance in his line readings. But the usually reliable Greenwood, as the English-accented Houston choreographer, has no such excuses.

And the screenplay from Jan Sardi (Shine, The Notebook) ricochets with unwitting zingers.

"How is he supposed to learn Don Quixote in three hours?!" exclaims a ballet patron anxiously.

"He's up to it," says Stevenson, with admiration for his young protege abrim in his eyes.

Ni hao.

Mao's Last Dancer **1/2 (out of four stars)

Directed by Bruce Beresford. With Chi Cao, Bruce Greenwood, Kyle MacLachlan, and Amanda Schull. Distributed by Samuel Goldwyn Films.

Running time: 1 hour, 57 mins.

Parent's guide: PG (adult themes)

Playing at: Ritz Five

Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/onmovies/

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