Mao’s Last Dancer: Bravo!—Movie

Mao’s Last Dancer is a celebration of the arts, of the human spirit and the desire to live life to its fullest. Directed by Bruce Beresford and based on the autobiography of Chinese ballet dancer, Li Cunxin, with screenplay by Jan Sardi, Mao’s Last Dancer is riveting from beginning to end.

Beresford does an amazing job in bringing Li’s life to the screen.  In 1972, Li was plucked from his elementary school and poverty stricken life in China’s Shandong Province to learn ballet in the Beijing Dance Academy. With no dance background, he struggled at first, but with sheer grit, determination, and a heretofore untapped natural gift, began to excel. In 1980 Li caught the eye of the Houston Ballet artistic director, Ben Stevenson, whose company had come to Beijing as part of an exchange program. Under Stevenson’s mentorship, Li leaves his family, country and language behind and comes to Houston to study ballet. In Houston Li flourishes, falls in love with and marries an American (immediately before he is due to return to China). He decides he wants to remain in the U.S., so with his attorney he goes to the Chinese consulate to inform officials of his decision. The repercussions are quick and severe. The Chinese government actually holds him hostage in the consulate. Eventually he is released, but it is years before his family is able to see him dance in the U.S. and years before he is able to return to China.

Three actors play Li and they are wonderful– Wen Bin Huang is Li as a child, Chengwu Guo  portrays the teenage Li and Chi Cao is the adult Li. Chengwu Guo  and Chi Cao are both ballet dancers and they are amazing. They literally fly through the air.

Canadian Bruce Greenwood is an unusual choice as the flamboyant director Stevenson, but he is spot on in his performance. This underrated, hard-working actor has the moves of a former dancer and is just a great surprise. Kyle MacLachlan, as Li’s Houston attorney, Charles Foster and Joan Chen as Li’s mother are very good in their roles and the film is buoyed by the dancers who play Li’s wives, fellow students, and members of the ballet company.

Mao’s Last Dancer’s final scenes are extremely moving and powerful. Don’t be surprised if at movie’s end you find yourself jumping to your feet, shouting “Bravo!”

3 1/2 nuggets out of 4

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