Veteran director Bruce Beresford has carved out a three-decade career crafting sturdy, slightly above-average films with just enough pulse and winsomeness to shuffle his audiences out of theaters with a half-smile and maybe a bland utterance like, “That was nice.” From Tender Mercies to Driving Miss Daisy, Beresford’s filmography is the Reader’s Digest of cinema. Mao’s Last Dancer, a tender, gawky and, at times, gorgeous true story of an impoverished Chinese kid plucked from his village to be trained as a ballet dancer who would make the Communist party proud, is pleasant in the most Beresfordian meaning of the word.
Star dancer Chi Cao plays Li Cunxin as a gentle soul, nationalistic yet romantic, who dances with power and sorrow. He is selected as an exchange student to come to the U.S. – the oil-swaggering 1970s Texas, to be exact – and train with Ben Stevenson’s (played with spot-on effeminacy and paternity by the brilliant, surging Bruce Greenwood) Houston Ballet company. While Cunxin excels, he also begins to notice girls, is seduced by discos, and succumbs to all the capitalistic tendencies his Chinese handlers warned him about. When he falls in love, gets married, and decides to stay in the States, he sets off an international incident that pits China against its Cold War foe in a media-friendly face-off.
When Dancer focuses on the dancing, it’s an intoxicating, Red Shoes-esque escape for the senses. Cao’s musicality, his bodily storytelling, is truly remarkable, to the point where it’s a bit ungainly that he’s surrounded by the inferior ballerinas we’re meant to marvel at. It’s like watching Laurence Olivier doing Hamlet in a community theater summer-stock production.
The film’s other myriad areas of interest fare no better: the political angle comes out of nowhere and remains confined to a tiny stand-in for the Chinese consulate; Cunxin’s troubled married life is condensed to one excruciatingly acted fight; and Beresford displays a tendency to break his own spells with laughable camera tricks straight out of an early-’80s music video. His choice to stage the tear-jerking climax against the more interpretive fusion of “Rite of Spring” is unthinkably wrong historically and artistically. (The performance in question was The Nutcracker in real life.)
Still, just enough goes right for Beresford’s unremarkable track record to remain intact. He can still put together a tepid film with no aftertaste, enjoyable and instantly forgettable. •
Mao’s Last Dancer
Dir. Bruce Beresford; writ. Jan Sardi, Cunxin Li (autobiography); feat. Amanda Schull, Chi Cao, Kyle MacLachlan, Bruce Greenwood, Jack Thompson, Aden Young