Mao’s Last Dancer

Identity drama set to choreography doesn’t quite work.

By Lauren Whalen, Facets Features contributing writer.

I’m a sucker for dance movies, which fall into two categories: dance plot and dance porn. The former are character-driven, using actors who don’t actually dance or making allowances for dancers who don’t actually act. The latter prompts the audience to sigh at any semblance of a story, but the cool choreography makes up for it.

Mao’s Last Dancer falls into the former category. Based on a true story, the film features some impressive movement, but that’s not its focus. And perhaps that’s the problem.

As a child in Maoist China, Li Cunxin was plucked from an impoverished home to attend dance school in Beijing. Years later, Li’s passionate style stands out to flamboyant visiting director Ben (Bruce Greenwood), and he is invited to study in Texas for three months. Li adjusts well to the States and becomes a rising star in the Houston Ballet. When he’s denied a visa extension, the real battle begins.

Mao’s Last Dancer had everything I usually embrace: dance, drama, and themes of identity and the redemptive power of art. Cunxin triumphed through hard work and talent, finding love and a surrogate family across the world – but not without a price. The movie also raises questions about Maoist China: the oppression wasn’t okay, but without the Communist ruler’s control, Li may not have received the opportunity to develop his gift. Finally, seeing Amanda Schull on screen for the first time since her lead role in Center Stage made me squeal on the inside.

However, I was uncompelled. Could have been the cinematography, alternating between dull and odd. Could have been the stiff script. What’s most frustrating is this: I can’t put my finger on the exact reason.

I haven’t read Cunxin’s autobiography. Perhaps it contained more interesting details that didn’t make it onscreen. Or perhaps if the film had been less “dance plot” and more “dance porn” – the gorgeous sequences from Rite of Spring and Swan Lake said far more about Li than most dialogue-heavy scenes – it would have been more compelling. Beautiful nonverbal performances tell their own story. Maybe the steps alone would have been enough.

Mao’s Last Dancer opens Friday. For more of Lauren’s reviews, visit The Unprofessional Critic.

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