Anyone intrigued by a film adaptation of Chinese ballerina Cunxin Li’s autobiography Mao’s Last Dancer, expecting something beyond a sanitized and thoroughly condescending biopic, should be reminded that the film is the latest by director Bruce Beresford, the man responsible for such emotionally thin drivel as Driving Miss Daisy, Black Robe, and Double Jeopardy. So it should come as no surprise that his latest project is as authentic as a three-dollar bill: Beresford ham-handedly hammers home any ostensibly earnest sentiments that screenwriter Jan Sardi invested in his already tediously bland script.
Only a director like Beresford, a filmmaker with no real confidence as a stylist or respect for the cast or the material he’s working with, could make something so monumentally tepid. The most egregious evidence of this special ineptitude can be seen in a scene where Li beds his future wife, Elizabeth (Amanda Schull), for the first time. Right after she tells him that she’s a virgin, Rick James’s “Super Freak” is used to segue between a sex act that isn’t shown and a scene in which the couple is dancing afterward at a discotheque. Unless I’m watching a Police Academy movie, there’s no good reason why Rick James should take us from a sex scene that ends before it’s really begun to, well, anywhere. From that point on, the film’s claims to emotional honesty deserve nothing but derisory laughter, especially since the disco-dancing sequence is as close as Beresford’s two-hour-long brown trout comes to anything vaguely salacious or even humanly warm (the fact that they’re trying so hard not so show anything more than chaste kisses proves how hard the filmmakers were gunning for a PG rating).
When Cunxin Li (Chi Cao) arrives in Houston, Texas after living in rural China and then training rigorously to be a dancer in Beijing, he’s amazed at the opulence of his new surroundings. So much so that we’re reminded of that culture shock in every scene during the first hour that isn’t a flashback: After his big gay Texan host Ben Stevenson (Bruce Greenwood, tarting his role up infrequently with flamboyant hip thrusts and churhlishly flirtatious pouts) teaches him the meaning of the word “fantastic,” Li uses it at least four times afterward to show how exhilarated he is with his newfound freedom and his new home.
Texas is, after all, not Beijing and that means uninhibited pretty girls as far as the eye can see, no need to fearfully declare fealty to a political leader or political system, and the freedom to dance for an appreciative audience. America’s got ATMs, Pepsi-Cola, and skyscrapers, strange, new-fangled things that Lin gapes at in amazement because, gosh, he’s never seen them crazy things before! This would be perfectly acceptable if the film weren’t asking us to sympathize with its protagonist’s plight instead of pitying him for being an alien hick, then cheering Li on as he fights for his right to dance and defect.
That canned struggle is, of course, fundamentally dissatisfying as neither Beresford nor Sardi has the guts to make the oppressive communist government from which Li is fleeing properly ghoulish. Mao’s minions, the ultimate filmic boogeymen after Nazis and before zombies, are downright polite when they’re abusing Li, his family and friends, and other Chinese people. The ugliest thing these faceless bullies do in the film is execute a group of villagers after parading them through town wearing placards denouncing their supposed crimes. Even then all of the violence and trauma is completely downplayed, but for whose benefit it’s unclear. We don’t know what’s written on those makeshift sandwich boards and the first gunshot fired is, again, implied and not shown, as the events in question are revealed to only have been a dream sequence anyway. Why does this film exist if not to make its audience giddy from watching one lone immigrant survive so he can dance—the thing he loves most in the world? Isn’t that what I came to see: an unenlightening melodrama that appeals to my basic need for the kind of unearned catharsis that only a story of progressive triumph over repressive evil can give me? Am I missing something here?
Beresford can’t even represent Li’s dancing—the reason we’re meant to root for this little foreigner that could in the first place—with a modicum of dynamism. There are three different speeds to Beresford’s camera when it’s filming Cao: normal; fast-motion, used during Li’s pirouettes; and slow motion, often used during Li’s acrobatic jumps. The problem in a nutshell is that we get far too much slow motion and not nearly enough normal speed, and the fact that we get fast motion at all is just shamefully dumb (Ken Russell could maybe get away with a fast-motion ballet number, but Beresford is clearly not Russell). If Beresford doesn’t care about these scenes enough to learn how to shoot dance numbers whose choreography predates his film by several decades (the ballets featured in the film all existed long before Beresford ever had the chance to listen to “Super Freak”), I sure as hell don’t either.