Mao’s Last Dancer DVD Review
|REVIEWS - DVD REVIEWS|
A tale of balletic ambition that doesn't quite fulfil its promise...
In 1981, ballet dancer Li Cunxin defected to the United States after a lifetime of training in the People’s Republic of China. Twenty-eight years later, his autobiography was adapted by Bruce Beresford (Driving Miss Daisy) and became one of the highest-grossing Australian films of all time...too bad it wasn’t a better movie.
Mired by stolid direction and unimaginative filmmaking, Mao’s Last Dancer emotionlessly spells out its themes and plots in such a way that even its occasional dips into melodrama fail to evoke the eye-rolls they deserve. Much of the film unfolds in flashback, detailing Li’s childhood in an unnamed village of northeastern China and his adolescent training in Beijing.
Played as a teenager by Australian Ballet dancer Chengwu Guo and an adult by Birmingham Royal Ballet Principal Dancer Chi Cao, Li struggles with a lack of talent and must instead develop his skills through sheer force of will in order to succeed. Discovered by Houston Ballet director Ben Stevenson (a subtle Bruce Greenwood) on a recruiting trip for a cultural exchange program, Li’s is a stereotypical fish-out-of-water story told in the broadest of clichés, from googly-eyed stares at skyscrapers and nightclub dancing to misunderstandings of English racial slurs and other linguistic snafus.
In the film’s favor is the casting of actual dancers in the appropriate roles, avoiding any comparisons to other recent ballet movies. However, such dedication to the dance scenes eventually becomes a detriment as they just aren’t particularly good actors. They give it their all, not just Guo and Bao, but also the female leads, San Francisco Ballet member Amanda Schull and Hong Kong Ballet dancer Camilla Vergotis; in the end, though, their dedication to their first profession eclipses any acting ability they might have. The supporting cast fares much better, particularly Greenwood and Joan Chen, whose role as Li’s mother amounts to a lengthy cameo. Kyle MacLachlan has a solid but thankless turn as Li’s immigration lawyer.
On the technical front, there was serious grain in the image, not just in the China sequences, where I suspect it was intentional, but also throughout the picture. Audio leveling issues, such as music drowning out dialogue popped up occasionally, but not often enough to hurt the film. The editing and cinematography were adequate, but the scenes of the dancing could have benefited from a good deal more artistry in their execution - it felt too much like actually being there, nothing approaching a cinematic experience. As an Eighties period piece, something which doesn’t come around often, the movie works, only one obvious anachronism skewing the suspension of temporal disbelief.
All in all, the film was far from a waste of time, but had more talent been funneled into it behind the camera, the final product could have been much less a slog and more the inspirational piece Beresford was obviously aiming for.
Mao's Last Dancer is out now.
IF YOU ENJOYED THIS ARTICLE, PLEASE HELP SUPPORT OUR SITE, AT NO COST WITH ONE CLICK ON THE FACEBOOK 'LIKE' BUTTON BELOW:
If you're interested in writing for Shadowlocked (disc and screening reviews, etc, or just getting some extra coverage for your extraordinary writing talent, get in touch with us.