Movie Rags to Riches Story
Mao’s Last Dancer is a surprising and powerful story of a child being raised in unimaginable poverty and then through some fortuitous events escaping the harsh life into which he was born. In a way this movie tells a rags to riches story.
Li Cunxin (Mao’s Last Dancer) was living in a remote village in China and this movie is his story.
His family was large, incredibly poor but loving. Members of the party scoured the countryside to find young children to train in Madam Mao’s Ballet Academy in Beijing. Li Cunxin was one of the chosen boys - one of 40 chosen from millions of children. Before being taken from his loving family and village life he was subjected to rigorous tests of ability. Once selected for the short list, his parents were interviewed by party officials to ensure they were loyal to the ideals and principles of Mao. They passed.
Li’s mother worked nights to stitch a quilt for him to take with him. Li Cunxin, struggled in the ballet school. He missed the love of his mother, his family and brothers. He wasn’t very good and when his teacher ridiculed him for his lack of strength, Li fought back. But Li had perseverance and learned to love ballet and devote time, when the other boys were sleeping to work on his strength. He wanted to make his family proud and represent his country.
Li was chosen to attend the prestigious Houston Ballet. The trip to the United States confuses the young man and forces him to re-evaluate all he’s learned about the west from the teachings in his own country. Watching him struggle with the conflict is particularly well done.
But it’s his story, the dedication to his craft and the dancing I came to love. He stays in the USA to dance for Houston Ballet and is banned from re-entering China for many years. The dance sequences in the movie are thrilling and lend another, strongly visual facet to the book I had read a few years earlier.
What didn’t I like about the movie? Too many longing looks at the family photograph. Although most of the flashbacks were superbly handled so the movie goer was able to identify the time period very quickly, for me there were a few too many of them and occasionally at odd times. Twice these ruined the tension built-up in the sequence.
Aside from those niggles, the movie built beautifully, holding tension and my attention throughout.
It’s a very powerful movie. I was well prepared as Li Cunxin was a keynote speaker at a conference I attended a few years ago. His presentation in person and his story moved me then.
I had also read the book, which shares the same title as the movie - Mao’s Last Dancer so I was ready with the tissues during critical points. Bruce Beresford’s direction of the movie did not let me down and the extra tissues were well used.
Sometimes movies made from well known books can disappoint but not this movie. I recommend the movie, the book and, if you get an opportunity to hear Li Cunxin as a keynote speaker, grab it with both hands. You will leave with tears in your eyes (even if you don't like ballet) and will certainly join the queue to buy his marvelous book.
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