Mao’s Last Dancer

By Matt Prigge
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Aug. 17, 2010

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Dear enterprising YouTubers: Will one of you please combine all the shots in fish-out-of-water movies that linger on foreigners staring in doe-eyed wonder, jaws on floor, at basic American luxuries? Some good places to start: Moscow on the Hudson, Time After Time, God Grew Tired of Us and the new Mao’s Last Dancer, the tale of Chinese-born ballet master Li Cunxin.

On loan from his miserable Communist home, Li (Chi Cao, a balletist himself) finds himself in Houston, where he’s immediately transfixed by malls. And ATMs. And “funny” T-shirts. And the freedom to deride the president/leader in a bar. And Pepsi’s sweet, fizzy taste. What a country! Our protagonist is such an adorable plush-doll immigrant that he doesn’t know the terms virgin, do it or even sex (but still scores).

Mao’s Last Dancer serves as a sideswipe to soul-crushing Communist ideals—the week’s second, no less (see also the Cold War saga Farewell). Born into poverty, Li manages to convey his balletic prowess despite the rigid misery of Commie China. When visiting Americans convince the powers that be to let him study abroad, despite Li’s heavy training in the art of resisting Western excess, it’s not long before he’s chugging soda, frügging to funk and making the beast with two backs. Cue international incident.

If this insistent melodrama, directed with little taste or restraint by the once-powerful Bruce Beresford (Tender Mercies, Driving Miss Daisy) has any merit, it’s that it manages to diss China’s governing style without planting a huge, sloppy kiss on the face of megacapitalism. The story is kept at a human level, and even flirts with complexity; this isn’t so much about someone discovering his native culture is shitty as it is someone wrestling with the beliefs of two often- opposed nations.

But getting hankies soiled is the film’s true M.O. Otherwise, it’s just another 20/20 human-interest segment with crane shots.

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