Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Mon Aug 23, 2010 10:17 am 
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Mao...dancer: get it?

Wooden East-West biopic about a Chinese ballet defector

In Mao's Last Dancer, the Australian director (who made Tender Mercies and Driving Miss Daisy, as well as the unusual aboriginal drama The Fringe Dwellers) tells the true story of a classical ballet dancer from China, Li Cunxin (pronounced Lee TZWUN-sheen) who defected to the US in the Eighties. After sixteen years with the Houston Ballet, he moved with his dancer wife to Australia, where he wrote the bestselling autobiography this is based on. The title is perhaps a bit misleading: from what Li says in a recent interview upon the US release of Beresford's film, rather than the last of anything, he was more notably "sort of the first defector from China in the cultural area."

Li was taken by Mao's cultural inspectors from his rural peasant family, where he was the sixth of seven brothers, when he was only eleven. By his early twenties he became one of the most promising students at the prestigious Beijing Dance Academy, and after Mao's death when things loosened up a bit it was arranged for him to have a three-month sojourn as a performer in Houston. When he decided to defect, he didn't know if he would ever be able to see his family again. The movie, which climaxes with Li's tearful reunion with his parents some years later, makes this story into a relentless tearjerker. Li's behavior is stiff and reserved when he first arrives in Houston and is taken on by the ballet company's oily leader, Ben Stevenson (veteran actor Bruce Greenwood, who is known for playing sneering villains). Maoist indoctrination partly accounts for Li's awkwardness. The young Chinese dancer was led to expect a shabby, unhappy place, and he is suspicious that the generosity and hospitality he encounters are only a front. Only the trouble is, everything about this movie is stiff and awkward. It's painfully obvious and free of warmth or nuance, but rife with the jerking of tears. Jan Sardi, a corn specialist, (Shine, The Notebook), wrote the screen adaptation.

Flashbacks show the scene when Li is plucked from his frigid classroom one snowy day, and how the frail though graceful boy, who didn't even like ballet at first, worked extra hard in an already brutal training environment to build up his muscles and thereby be all he could be to serve Chairman Mao and the Revolution. These sequences sometimes seem more like a Chinese folkloric pageant than real events, and underline how wooden and simplistic the whole movie is. (It might have been fun if all the Chinese passages were deliberately staged as more dumb-show, for a kind of Brechtian Alienation Effect.) Even Li's worst physical and mental sufferings seem unreal. It's not always clear if his family's hardships after he left actually happened, or if we're watching his nightmares about them. Joan Chen (another veteran) has a small role as Li's feisty mother. The training passages include Teacher Chan (Su Zhang), who appreciated and nurtured the boy and taught him to love ballet and have faith in his abilities, but was banished for not being a good communist -- in other words, for championing western classical ballet. In this version of the story (not the real one) Teacher Chan slips a tape to Li that the students watch, depicting Barishnikov (an earlier defector, of course): more tears. It's made clear that this was not an environment where western ballet could possibly flourish, despite the fact that China did produce a few good dancers, among the many who were merely remarkable athletes. Political officials force the Academy to drop doing western ballet and substitute communist propaganda shows, with the dancers in pajamas waving flags.

Some details, such as Li's romance with a student dancer he meets in Houston, Liz (Amanda Schull), whom he secretly marries, are sketchy and abrupt. (When the marriage later quickly fails, that is believable. The question is, how it ever succeeded.) There were other visiting Chinese dancers then, it appears, but they are left out of the picture. Why is Stevenson made so smarmy? He comes off as wooden as everybody else. Wasn't it inappropriate as well as shocking to the impoverished visitor for Stevenson to buy Li $500 worth of clothing in one day? Three actors play Li Cunxin. The spindly Wen Bin Huang is Li as a boy, a more confident Chengwu Guo plays him as a teenager. Chi Cao, a Chinese-born dancer and principal of the Birmingham Royal Ballet, not being an actor, fits into the imposed limitations of the simplistic script as the young man whose jerky English develops as fast as his desire to enjoy the freedom to dance classical ballet in a place where it's appreciated. At least Chi Cao's dance sequences, planned for a simplistic "wow" factor, are polished. This fictionalized Li gets his big break when Houston Ballet's lead dancer is injured just before a scheduled performance, and he leaps to stardom. The use of slo-mo to drag out every one of those leaps destroys the continuity and takes us into the land of Wide World of Sports. The real Li Cunxin in his prime was truly remarkable, a blend of extraordinarily powerful legs and graceful upper body, and it would have been nice if some actual footage of his dancing could have been woven in.

Mao's Last Dancer will appeal to ballet fans hungry for a good weeper; and there's even a sequence from Swan Lake. Given the jerky filmmaking and disco scenes the movie may feel like it was made in the Eighties by a B director. The jingoistic anti-communist message fits that profile too, I guess. But after seeing brilliant, nuanced films of China in the Eighties by Jia Zhang-ke, this stuff just won't wash. The movie develops a pulse briefly during the battle with the Chinese consulate, which becomes an international incident when Li is held there against his will and the protests of his American sponsors and his lawyer. Kyle MacLachlan has a suave turn as Charles Foster, Li's highly effective, battling immigration lawyer. But this, like everything else, is handled more crudely than necessary. This movie makes you feel very sad, not for the dancer, who lived happily ever after, but for the Australian film industry.

Ironically, however, this example of a well-known Australian director working at about 1/4 capacity opened the same day as Aussie David Michôd's stunning feature debut, Animal Kingdom, a cynical, edgy tale of a criminal family and out-of-control cops in Melbourne that won the Grand Jury Dramatic Prize at Sundance this year. Let's hope Michôd's work means Down Under cinema's going to develop some solid international cred again, despite this clunker.

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©Chris Knipp. Blog: http://chrisknipp.blogspot.com/.


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