“The world up here is huge and bright”
Like the frog in an old children’s story his father told, young Li Cunxin had no idea what awaited him outside his well. Plucked from a classroom at eleven years old to be tested for agility and balance, Chairman Mao’s government took control of his life by excising him from family in order to be educated and groomed into an elite dancer. He was to be a spokesman for the Communist party, a beloved son of China carrying his culture into a new land. But the allure of a freedom one cannot understand exists until leaving his own oppression proved too much. Mao’s Last Dancer tells his true story of rising above a peasant upbringing, pushing through adversity when deemed too weak for the ballet, and telling his country—rooted in communal selflessness—he wanted to stay an individual, a success, and a lover abroad. For once in his life, Li had the right to do what he desired.
Adapted from its subject’s autobiography, Jan Sardi’s script crosscuts between the boy’s childhood and schooling with his three-month visit to Houston as a guest of their ballet company. Director Bruce Beresford deftly interweaves important moments in his life to show how the past infers on the present, his appreciation of a father working long days for little pay causing embarrassment when taking gifts and the advice from a teacher, Chan (Su Zhang), on how to strengthen his core a direct cause of the physique admired by those in Houston. Li (Chi Cao) never enjoyed ballet as a child; in fact he never understood it. Tirelessly practicing in classes for men like Gao (Gang Jiao) to berate and judge, his failures and lack of confidence became who he was. China hoped for a style to call their own, but performances filled with guns and politics—although stunning—simply didn’t hold the beauty or essence of a Baryshnikov.
It was this Russian defector, seen via a videotape—illegal in its mere existence, showing someone leaving their home for another—who opened Li’s eyes to what his body was capable of doing. Whether he would have chosen a career in dancing had the choice been his no longer mattered, he was given the opportunity for greatness, to become the first in his family to read and write as well as to travel the world. Only at that point did he take Chan’s advice to heart, building the muscle and endurance needed to quiet men like Gao; not just silence them, but also turn their allegiance towards and praise his way. The Russian influence set him apart from the rest of the class consisting of mechanical automatons, technically sound yet lacking passion. He caught the eye of Houston’s artistic director, Ben Stevenson (Bruce Greenwood), and through him was awarded the honor to fly away and experience a life his village never could have dreamt, let alone understood.
Throughout the first act of the film we watch Li assimilate into American culture. With a tenuous at best handle on the language, flashbacks of teachers explaining the horrors he could expect in a capitalist nation perplex as the reality is anything but. He tries soda, dances at clubs, hears new friends critique their government, and finds a beautiful woman to fall in love with. Elizabeth (Amanda Schull) becomes someone who can make him smile, someone to understand him as a person and not just the athletic specimen or burgeoning star the world will soon discover. Li makes a life for himself in a short time, but never forsakes his country. A tough decision to seek an attorney (Kyle Maclachlan) in order to stay leads to a moral quandary. Still believing in Communism and wanting to one day visit his parents again; the frenzy that ensues when he asks China’s Consul Zhang (Ferdinand Hoang) for permission is unthinkable and unfortunate.
The story depicted is a harrowing look into the rights of an individual’s freedoms and the hard choices made to achieve them. Li is shown as a compassionate and intelligent young man with a strong moral compass, but also the hopes and aspirations of a man with the taste of something more. It is the film’s second act that proves to be the most devastating as it portrays the aftermath of his decision and the resulting consequences lain down by his former country. His loving parents who haven’t seen him in almost a decade are soon ostracized by the actions of a boy raised by the same government who now disowns him. In one of the best scenes, we experience the pain of parenthood at the loss of a child through the quiet, sad stare of Shuangbao Wang and the fierce tenacity of Joan Chen, refusing to be blamed for what she had never been given the chance to control.
Mao’s Last Dancer may fall prey to its subject matter’s heartfelt sentimentality, especially at its conclusion, but if that’s its only fault, one shouldn’t worry. Cao is magnificent as Li, evolving as the years progress to be every bit as accomplished as his real life counterpart during a handful of mesmerizing dance sequences. Whether opposite Madeleine Eastoe (as Lori) in Don Quixote or Camilla Vergotis (as Mary) in Swan Lake, the precise choreography is nothing short of breathtaking, for once giving theatergoers an unedited example of what the biography’s subject can do. You believe in his dream and his skill; you hold onto his love for Liz, one as real as anything in his life no matter how brief or convenient. And the personal and professional relationship cultivated with Stevenson, (Greenwood is fantastic in this role, adopting his character’s affectations and mannerisms with grace rather than caricature), is one rooted in a stronger bond than even a political snafu could derail.
We watch this young boy grow into a man who earns everything he achieves through hard work and dedication. Surrounded by those unable to dismiss the large heart and affable modesty forever shining forth, he finds a new family across the Pacific, never forgetting the one left behind. It’s only fitting that Beresford ends the film the way he does, coming full circle back to China after years of unknowns and the fear of tragedy, giving us a tearjerker that just might earn its tears. Uplifting in the fullest, Li Cunxin’s story is an inspirational one for all dreamers out there while also showing a slice of our tumultuous history with China during Mao’s reign. Through Li we can learn that some things are more important than politics and duty—humanity needs the space to find oneself and fly free, the infinite sky of possibilities forever beckoning us to reach higher.
 Chi Cao as Li and Camilla Vergotis as Mary in MAO’S LAST DANCER. Photo Credit: Simon Cardwell / Samuel Goldwyn Films
 Bruce Greenwood as Ben Stevenson, Steven Heathcote as Bobby Cordner and Camilla Vergotis as Mary in MAO’S LAST DANCER. Photo credit: Simon Cardwell / Samuel Goldwyn Films
 Kyle MacLachlan as Charles Foster in MAO’S LAST DANCER. Photo Credit: Simon Cardwell / Samuel Goldwyn Films