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Sunday, 1 November 2009

Mao's Last Dancer



When Li Cunxin (Chi Cao) is sent to Texas as part of the Chinese ballet's cultural exchange program, he might as well be travelling to another planet. The year is 1979, disco rules the dance floor, and even poor English and a bad suit isn't enough to isolate a visitor from the temptations of the West when even the Chinese food is different. But for Li, who was taken from his isolated village as a child and has spent his entire life training to be both a dancer and a communist, it's not until he finds love that he finds what the West has to offer too much to resist. With the help of a few friends, he announced that he won't be returning to China - which is a nice idea in theory, but in practice the Chinese government doesn't just let it's prized dancers walk out the door.

Now living in Australia (and married to a former member of the Australia ballet), Cunxin's memoir has been a best-seller, and director Bruce Beresford has turned it into a solid, competent film that ticks all the boxes but only rarely leaps into life. Surprisingly, it's the largely dance-free scenes in China covering Cunxin's early life that are the most visually stunning and dramatically compelling moments in the film: in contrast Texas is ugly (it's hard to know whether the cheap look comes from budget costs or a totally accurate representation of the era's now-dated look), predictable, and populated by Australians putting on bad accents. It falls on Cao to hold the film together with a consistently convincing performance – a performance that's made all the more impressive when combined with a string of breath-taking dance numbers that make this sometimes blunt and occasionally clumsy effort rewarding viewing.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #464)

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