In the film, Li Cunxin (played by Chi Cao) comes to America in 1981. He has absorbed government propaganda that declared China to have "the highest standard of living in the world," that in America many were starving. Allowed to train with the Houston Ballet, Li sees an extravagant land of plenty, is stunned by America's level of freedom and decides to defect.
"In the hands of a less capable filmmaker . . . this film could easily have degenerated into a jingoistic anti-Communist diatribe," Bruce DeMara wrote in the Toronto Star.
But good reviews praising the film's sensitive treatment of the story and an Oscar-nominated director ("Tender Mercies," "Driving Miss Daisy") weren't enough to sway Chinese authorities, who have banned everything from "The Departed" (Chinese weapons smuggling) to "Avatar" (pulled from theaters over fear it would spur unrest).
"They allow you to film in China in two ways," explained Chen, who has worked in China and Hollywood since the 1980s. "If the film is a co-production, it has Chinese involvement. The other way is assisted production. No Chinese involvement. That's what we did. Automatically, you are disqualified."
She fretted over this "because China today is nothing like it was 30 years ago."
"Under Mao, people were literally starving. He'd put out orders to kill all the sparrows in the country or that no one was allowed to eat at home. They had to eat in communal kitchens. The difference today is just shattering. Beijing, when we were shooting there, was in many ways just like Los Angeles."
But he knew going in that this wasn't a film for the booming China market.
"It's criticizing the old communist regime. And upholding those traditions is what the current regime is basing their credibility on. They're well aware that they're leading a nation of well over a billion people without ever having been elected to do so. Nobody voted for Mao and Madame Mao, either. Anything that reminds the Chinese of that is not going to be shown there."
Chen was drawn to the project because of the similarities with her own story, though she came to Hollywood already a starlet back in China and she didn't defect, "but I had to sign a letter with the government, promising to come back."
The culture shock she and Li Cunxin experienced was the same, Chen said. "Overwhelmed. We had so little information about what America was really like. My English teachers in school, none of them had ever met a native English speaker, American or British.
"Things are so much different there now. Our generation is so fortunate to have seen the sweeping changes in China that we've witnessed."
But Chen frets that whatever its economic progress, a government that edits out "unflattering" performances (Chow Yun-fat of "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End") is raising a generation as removed from reality as hers was.
"You show 'Mao's Last Dancer' to a young person in China today, they're going to go, 'Wow. That happened?' The young people that I meet there seem so nationalistic. It's a dangerously narrow way to think. They are so caught up in national pride that they don't see their country as it truly is."
Someday, she hopes, "China will be free to remember the Cultural Revolution and see it in movies like ours."
And Beresford fully expects to have the last laugh. In the movie, Li Cunxin is inspired by a smuggled VHS tape of Soviet defector and ballet superstar Mikhail Baryshnikov. The same thing happens in China today.
"The government may keep the movie out of theaters," Beresford said. "But they can't stop all the DVDs. It's already on the streets all over China. Illegally, I might add. Bootlegged. Chi Cao told me a friend had bought up a hundred copies of the DVD from a street vendor. And it hasn't opened in most of the world. They'll see it, all right."