Mao’s Last Dancer (2009)

Don’t miss Mao’s Last Dancer. Directed by the superb Australian director, Bruce Beresford, it is the finest film I’ve seen about the education of a ballet dancer and a wonderfully surprising movie.  As a mere boy in a remote village, the eventual Chinese master dancer, Li Cunxin, is almost accidentally chosen by brusque, stern, unqualified party officials rounding up children as candidates for Madame Mao’s Dance Academy in Beijing in the later years of Mao Tse-tung’s reign. Cunxin ends up prevailing at the academy, and in this all-too-brief but marvelous early interlude the movie becomes entirely engrossing as the Senior Teacher at the academy, Chan, begins at The Beginning of mastering the art–the basic dance movements, the painful flexibility demands, the psychology of the almost impossible art, all this coming from Chan’s passion for the Russian ballet tradition of which he himself is a master interpreter and teacher, a given in the movie since we know and learn nothing of his own history in the ballet and wonder when he might have had the time and chance to discover and master it. The insight into ballet is pretty much “Straight, No Chaser” (to steal one of the titular inspirations of Thelonious Monk). In our kibitzing of the ballet art we are shown as the ultimate recital/lesson a few filmed glories of Baryshnikov, that admirer of Astaire and an unforgettable genius, and Baryshnikov’s ascents as he soars heavenward are themselves, in just those few sublime seconds, worth seeing the movie.

Yes, throughout this early part of the film Beresford deftly telescopes the growing artistry of Li Cunxin as he becomes a master. In the dingy, dark, cold, ideological academy training rooms, Beresford manages to suggest the apprenticeship, and gloriously, spiritedly, points to art as a refuge in this historically stranger and stranger world. The dancing shames the surrounding reality in which the awful academy of kidnapped aspirants somehow is transformed into a perfect backdrop for the rigors of the beautiful. Then comes a good movie–the rest of the story: coming to America; culture shock; discovery by a ballet director in Houston; a sad but crucial romance; an international tug-of-war over Cunxin; and you can probably imagine the rest, though you will enjoy this other longer movie within the movie, for it is most touching. And just wait until you see the final staged ballet Li Cunxin is shown dancing beautifully! What a finish! Beresford will do no wrong for me.