Written by Jan Sardi
Directed by Bruce Beresford
Starring Chi Cao, Bruce Greenwood, Kyle MacLachlan and Amanda Schull
In 1972, in the Shandong province in the People’s Republic of China, a young boy of no more than eleven years old, was chosen. Exactly what he was chosen for was not made so clear at that point. There is no way that a young Li Cunxin could know at that point, when he was separated from his family to go to the Beijing Dance Academy simply because he was technically limber enough to become a potential ballet dancer, that he would go on to cause an international scandal that would in turn make him MAO’S LAST DANCER.Li Cunxin: When I dance, I dance for them.
Director Bruce Beresford tells the true story of how Li (played in the film as an adult by the skilled Chi Cao, who incidentally also trained at the same academy in Beijing) came to spend a summer in Houston, Texas on an exchange program and how that experience subsequently made it impossible for him to return to Communist China afterward. While in America, Li has extreme culture clash at first, shocked when his guardian, Ben Stevenson (played by Bruce Greenwood, who could not be any lighter in his loafers if he tried) drops hundreds of dollars in a day of shopping when his parents had never seen that much money in their lifetime. The shock wears off though and Li comes to see that democracy might actually make him a freer dancer as well.
Beresford bounces back and forth between Li’s back story and his time in Houston in the late 1970’s. The contrasting experiences are drastic and it makes it a little too easy to side with the American idealism that supposedly promotes freedom of expression instead of the strict home Li came from. Still, the story is a true one and a difficult one at that, with plenty of emotional payoff in the end. What makes MAO’S LAST DANCER memorable though, aside from its truths and struggles, is all the beautiful dancing in between. We may not be watching Li himself dance on screen but we do get to see exactly what he was fighting for.