Dancing out of China


Mao’s Last Dancer, is the story of top Chinese ballet dancer Li Cunxin who defected to the US in 1981.

One of the trickiest aspects of creating drama about a celebrated artist’s life is finding an actor who can convey both the emotional life and the talent of that artist. It takes both an accomplished actor to present a convincing face for the artist and an excellent artist to convey the talent.

In this respect, Aussie director Bruce Beresford (Breaker Morant, Driving Miss Daisy) has got it right in Mao’s Last Dancer, a feel-good tear-jerker based on the autobiography of top Chinese ballet dancer Li Cunxin who defected to the US in 1981.

The non-linear story follows Li through three stages of his life: plucked as a boy from his peasant village home in the People’s Republic in the seventies, enduring the hardships and rigours of elite training at the Beijing Ballet School and his growing sense of the artistic constraints of communist rule when studying with the Houston Ballet.

The dancing is fantastic. Chi Cao, principal dancer at the Birmingham Royal Ballet, displays an awe-inspiring physical grace in the lead part as the elder Li Cunxin and the set-piece ballet numbers – thankfully, there are many – are the strongest parts of the film.

Cao’s performance, however, falls a little flat in some of the emotionally demanding, non-dance scenes, such as when he talks about his motivations for defecting and the implications for his family. But he does it well enough and he’s good with the script’s initial fish-out-of-water humour on arriving in Houston.

Jan Sardi’s script allows supporting characters to add depth to the central character, particularly Bruce Greenwood as the amiable director of the Houston Ballet. There are also memorable turns by Kyle MacLachlan as an immigration lawyer and Joan Chen as his feisty mum.

Shot in China, the film has an authenticity to its location, although the gentle mocking of communist naïveté about the malevolent West is nothing that would upset contemporary Chinese censors. A tad rose-tinted, but still enjoyable.

Vancouver’s documentary festival DOXA marks its 10th anniversary this month. Organized by the non-profit group Documentary Media Society, the festival screens mainly at Vancity Theatre and Pacific Cinémathèque, May 7 to 16.

Not surprising, given the medium, this year’s line-up of 50 plus films has a strong activist flavour. The opener Terra Madre (Mother Earth), by septuagenarian Ermanno Olmi, draws on a series of conferences held by the slow food movement in Turin, Italy, in 2006 and 2008. It is described as “a poem to beauty, food and the slow passage of time.”

Meanwhile, the closing film Saint Misbehavin’: The Wavy Gravy Movie profiles Wavy Gravy, who famously promised 400,000 people “breakfast in bed” at the Woodstock Festival and who has been described as “the illegitimate son of Harpo Marx and Mother Theresa, conceived one starry night on a spiritual whoopie cushion.”

The line-up of films reveals plenty of variety, from a look at the high-pressure job of regulating European soccer matches in The Referees (13th, 6pm, PC) to an update on activists affected by the 1985 sinking of Greenpeace’s flagship by the French Secret Service in The Rainbow Warriors of Waiheke Island (9th, 9pm, VT).

There’s also the quirky-sounding The Mirror (14th, 6:30pm, VT), which follows a bizarre attempt to throw light on a town stuck in a dark alpine valley, using a huge mirror.

No Fun City, one of 14 feature-length Canadian documentaries at DOXA, depicts tensions in a gentrifying Vancouver between musicians who want to play their instruments loud and condo owners. (10th, 9pm, PC)

For those interested in the process of making documentaries, Rivers and Tides director Thomas Riedelsheimer, who holds a teaching residency at Emily Carr, gives a free talk (13th, 3pm, PC). More info at www.doxafestival.ca

Robert Alstead made the Vancouver documentary You Never Bike Alone.www.youneverbikealone.com. He writes at www.2020Vancouver.com.

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