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Movie Review - Mao's Last Dancer
Mao’s Last Dancer is a movie about a boy in the Chinese communist society from the Australian director Bruce Beresford. Li Cunxin (played by several actors as he grows up) has six brothers and lives on the Chinese countryside with his family. In 1972, at the very young age of 11, he gets chosen to study ballet at Madame Mao’s Beijing Dance Academy, in the spirit of the party of course. He grows up in the ballet school, being taught the principles of ballet and the principles of the strict Chinese communist regime. Some of the teachers think he is not strong enough and will never make it. But one of the teachers has great faith in him, and encourages him to be the best he can. As a young adult he gets chosen to represent China and the Chinese ballet in the US for three months in 1981. Li stays with the American ballet teacher Ben Stevenson (Bruce Greenwood) and dances with the Houston Ballet Company. During this time he gets exposed to the US capitalist society for the first time. He struggles with combining his strict communist morals with the loose American morals. When he gets a lead role in a TV-production of the ballet piece Die Fledermaus, he becomes a famous star in the US. And then he falls in love with another dancer, Elizabeth (Amanda Schull) and this changes everything. After his time in the US is up, he applies for an extension, but isn’t granted one. He stays in the US anyway, and is banned to ever return to China. Amongst nightmares of the grief he caused his family he continues his career as a ballet dancer.
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The adult actor playing Li Cunxin is great as the Chinese dancer. He is very pleasant to look at, and delivers a great performance as the driven, but culture confused dancer. The contrast between communist China and the US is enormous in this movie. It is rather amusing to watch Li take in these differences and his surprise at some American customs, you would not think about twice. The American ballet teacher is a great actor, but he comes of as slightly annoying sometimes. He clearly tries to play his character very feminine, and there are a few hints he might be gay, but he never comes out and says it, so as viewers we will never know for sure. Which I guess is not hugely important for the movie, but just something that I found a little irritating. It might be because the gay lifestyle was not very well accepted these days, although I think the 80s were not too bad for being gay.
The ballet scenes in the movie are spectacular. If you enjoy ballet you definitely have to go see this movie! And even if you don’t, you will enjoy it. It pictures an interesting painting of Li Cunxin’s life coming to grips with his communist youth in China, and his adult life in the capitalist US. Mao’s Last Dancer is a story of courage, perseverance and love.