Bruce Beresford’s Mao’s Last Dancer is a film that cannot decide what it wants to be. The story of a Chinese dancer who comes to Reagan’s America finding not only a passion for ballet but himself, it is one part anti-communist manifesto with doses of Asian fetishism, one part immigration caper, one part love story, one part alien comes to the suburbs adventure (think Mac and Me) and one part dance film. The trouble is that only one of these facets, the dance film, actually rises above the patina of Hollywood fit and finish that will make you want to walk out of this film. It’s not that Mr. Beresford made a terrible film, he simply made one that discounts the last twenty years worth of intellectual growth we have achieved both as filmgoers and international citizens.
The biggest redeeming factor of the film, besides the lovely dance sequences, is Bruce Greenwood’s performance as Ben Stevenson, the kind, graceful, enigmatic and at times manipulative director of the Houston Dance Company. Under the auspices of a student exchange program, Stevenson brought Li Cunxin (Chi Cao) to Texas after seeing his work in China. Raised by state ballet instructors in a rigorous bid for cultural dominance, Li’s skill is unhoned; very cold and mechanical, very Communist. Stevenson sees a project in Li, and with hopes of being the first company to cross the red curtain, the exchange is but one step in his own plan for cultural ascendance. Greenwood has an impeccable ear for smarm, most recently in Jay Roach’s Dinner for Schmucks, but the Stevenson character is something new, something wonderful. He has imbued his entire being with a life of its own: a stride that only he could pull off, an accent that ebbs and flows from soothing to irate between scenes, and a giant pair of headphones that he manages to make look chic. It is an impressive performance held back only by the thinness of the story as a whole.
Like any biopic, the goals of Mao’s Last Dancer are far reaching, too strident to be told within the confines of a feature film. This is not only the life of a man, but a geopolitical relationship that needs context in the wake of the Beijing Olympics. In 2010, China isn’t exactly all that bad in the eyes of Joe American, so time is wasted bringing us up to speed. The scenes in China, where Li grows up inundated with the Communist dream, are cartoonish, like something out of a 1940s newsreel. Teachers spew vitriol on the American way of life, all to the enjoyment of at least the crowd I saw the film. How stupid they are, thinking America is a wasteland. The irony I hope viewers will recognize is that the lies the children learn of the U.S. is tantamount to the film we are watching, this Chinese fairy tale. As it is when Li comes to America, looking around as if he’s landed on the moon. It’s not that Li (a real person, by the way) didn’t experience America in this way, confused by t-shirts and wowed by skyscrapers, it’s that there is a story far more interesting than that to be told.
The best off-stage sequence in the film could have been a feature in itself. After a bold evening in which Li makes efforts to stay in the U.S. once his visa expires, he and a gang of friends, lawyer in tow, go to the Chinese embassy to explain why he is leaving. Of course, goons pop out of the shadows and take him away, ready to move him back to his homeland and deny his U.S. Status. This is the part that tries to become international intrigue. It falls a little flat but is aware of its absurdity (“chairman meow”). As the scene drags on, it serves as yet another reminder that this film cannot decide which story it wants to tell. The one of a long night in an Embassy while the world watches to see how two governments at odds with one another will react sounds like a pretty good one to me, but instead it’s just an extended moment. We never get inside of the real Li. His emotions are either too reserved or too large. They involve crying, smiling, and expositing. Even the Chinese have nuance to their emotions, but the way Li is written you wouldn’t think so.
One more thing. Narratively, this film doesn’t work for me, but there is something about Mr. Beresford’s confused touch that is in part irresistible. The scenes in China feel like an older film. The classroom sequences call to mind some moments of Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, or perhaps Louis Malle’s Au Revoir Les Enfants. Whatever I can say about this film, there are still aspects of it that are mystifying, mostly on stage. It plays as corny and simplistic, but it still looks good. For some, that may be enough.