Review of Mao’s Last Dancer, Directed by Bruce Beresford
By KENDRICK KUO
I’ve become the resident reviewer of Chinese foreign films and movies about China. And in due course I will also become the reviewer of books about China. Having grown up as an Asian American, let’s say this is a way for me to get in touch with my roots. So in the same vein, I decided to continue my trend of watching China-related movies and watched Mao’s Last Dancer, which is based on the true story of Li Cunxin, made known to the world through his autobiography. All that follows is based solely on the film itself and how it portrayed Li.
Li was born in the rural countryside, but taken at a young age by Chinese officials to study ballet. We see the conflict between ballet as a Western expression of art and elegance for the sake of celebrating the human form and the use of art as political fodder. I haven’t read Li’s autobiography, but I’m assuming that this all took place in the milieu stirred up by Jiang Qing (Mao’s wife) during the lead up to the Cultural Revolution. But the fascinating question of the role of art in the political sphere is beyond the pale of what I want to discuss.
The most famous incident that catapulted Li into the public eye was his defection to the United States. The film spends most of its time chronicling his rise to principal dancer in the Houston Ballet during his stint there as a dancing exchange student. Up to this point, there’s nothing in the narrative worth pondering, and it’s at least halfway done at this point. It’s an inspirational story of a young boy who was the weakest in the class who eventually trained to become the best, following the sage advice of his teacher that repetition and perseverance pays off. Then viewers get hit by Li’s defection in order to stay in the United States, sparked by a tense standoff at the Chinese consulate.
After this climax, the sprint to the conclusion of the film was deeply lacking. The tagline of Mao’s Last Dancer is: “before you can fly you have to be free.” Freedom, but at what cost? Li decides that he’d rather stay in the United States and risk his parents being punished in his stead. He has nightmares about what his parents must be undergoing, which may garner some sympathy, but he knew the potential repercussions when he made his decision.
In the world of cinema, the word “freedom” always evokes memories of Braveheart. What a contrast between the hero we have in William Wallace, who cries freedom as he dies the death of a Christ-like hero who has sacrificed everything for his people, and in Li Cunxin who (might I say selfishly?) grasps for freedom and leaves his parents to face punishment. One dies for freedom while the other pursues it at the expense of the innocent.
On top of this unforgivable flaw, Li leaves the woman whom he married. Whether or not he married her in order to get U.S. residency is not entirely clear, though he does verbally deny such manipulation on his part. What is clearer is that she eventually leaves him because he’s so engrossed in his career that she feels like an outsider, having previously been a ballet dancer as well, but unable to perform after an injury.
Mao’s Last Dancer ends with a triumphal return to his Chinese countryside village with a Western woman (not his wife; they actually divorced is never explained) who has become his dancing partner. There is no repentance on his part throughout the film and the director implies no criticism of Li’s decisions. They are glossed over and forgotten in the dazzling light of Li’s success as a nationally-praised dancer. The film oozed self-absorption and a skewed moral compass whereby “North” was always “career.”
The Christian worldview that informs much of our social ethics—respect for parents, selflessness, humility—is trampled on. The audience is blinded to the obvious violations of that worldview by the beauty of Li’s art. Beauty and truth and righteousness all find their standard in God, but we oftentimes elevate beauty to the point where it becomes tarnished, twisted into masking lies.