Dancing Fool
By Andrew Chan

Mao’s Last Dancer
Bruce Beresford, U.S., Samuel Goldwyn Films

Watching Mao’s Last Dancer, Bruce Beresford’s adaptation of Chinese-Australian ballet star Li Cunxin’s memoir, you might find yourself forgetting that ballet is an art. We meet the young Cunxin as an unremarkable 11-year-old mountain villager in the late Seventies, plucked by the fates to join the prestigious Beijing Dance Academy and undergo years of grueling training to become a ballerino. In these early scenes, dance is introduced as an escape from a life of poverty and obscurity, not as a medium that might provide emotional release in an era of Maoist oppression. From then on, the film maintains a consistently uncurious and coldly practical view of ballet, one in which effort is enough to equal creative achievement. After taking the proverb-laced advice of his wise old master, the young-adult Cunxin (Chi Cao) begins working on strengthening his technical abilities and distinguishing himself from his classmates, a task that pays off when visiting American ballet director Ben Stevenson (Bruce Greenwood), who enlists him to join his company in Houston, Texas. And so a star is born, though we are never allowed to understand what exactly makes Cunxin such a magnetic performer. Dance, after all, is merely a matter of athletic discipline, a means of international exchange, a set-up for cheap family melodrama—anything but an art form that might have something to communicate to its audience.

Rather than explore Cunxin’s self-realization as an artist, Beresford and screenwriter Jan Sardi are more interested in retreading clichés of culture shock and immigrant angst. Reminiscent of the culture clashes in Beresford’s African-themed Mister Johnson and A Good Man in Africa, the film’s central East-West collision is telegraphed through an often hilarious assortment of caricatures. Since there’s nothing about this biopic that strikes one as remotely serious, well-researched, or attentive to realistic detail, a viewer begins to hope for a strong lead character or two to spice things up. Instead, Cunxin maintains the kind of quiet, empty-headed stoicism with which the vast majority of Chinese male heroes in Western filmmaking have routinely been endowed. Beresford’s breezily artless style (complete with the bland TV-movie cinematography from his Southern dramas, Crimes of the Heart and Driving Miss Daisy) is inadequate to the task of dramatizing the mixture of guilt and excitement with which Cunxin perceives his new home, and Cao’s limited range of deer-in-headlights expressions fails to compensate for this emotional shallowness. As in previous high-profile East-meets-West productions such as The Joy Luck Club and Memoirs of a Geisha, the film spends too much time straitjacketing its protagonist in pidgin-English dialogue, without finding non-verbal ways of illuminating his interior life.

At first it seems somewhat commendable that, in contrasting the U.S. and the PRC in the late Seventies and early Eighties, Beresford keeps the tacky nostalgia to a minimum. Maintaining a style developed through a career’s worth of straightforward theatrical adaptations, he eschews the exotic pageantry with which Western filmmakers often regard Chinese landscapes, and instead favors the interior world of classrooms and dance studios. But his restraint later proves to be one of the film’s greatest handicaps, as it becomes clear that Beresford has no intention of fully inhabiting the political or social intricacies of either cultural context. During the historical moment in which the film is set, an ancient, fiercely isolationist society was beginning to open up to the world under the guidance of Deng Xiaoping’s economic reform policies. But the thrill of such a breakthrough is flattened in Beresford’s unimaginative retelling and reduced to a checklist of banal observations of cultural difference—as when Ben Stevenson’s wardrobe makeover for Cunxin schools us on the wide chasm between Chinese frugality and American consumerism, or when the glum defeatism of Cunxin’s wannabe-ballerina girlfriend (Amanda Schull) emphasizes his own stereotypically Chinese adherence to backbreaking labor and self-discipline.

In the midst of its old-fashioned rags-to-riches narrative, the film fails to communicate the skill and passion for ballet that presumably wins Cunxin’s Texas sojourn such acclaim. What’s missing is the humor, dynamism, and collaborative spirit found in a backstage drama like Robert Altman’s The Company; here, each character represents a fixed point along Cunxin’s journey toward cultural reconciliation. While Cunxin and his family (which includes Joan Chen as his mother) remain cartoonishly one-dimensional, tearing up and acting strong at just the right moments, the thinly sketched Americans provide the bulk of the unintentional laughs. Their attitudes toward Cunxin range from racist condescension and paternalistic concern to righteous generosity. Cunxin’s romance and marriage to Schull’s unsuccessful American dancer has moments of dramatic promise, as the two lovers hopelessly try to communicate through their incompatible values and vastly different backgrounds. But Schull is saddled with the thankless role of a little girl lost, and the film encourages us to look down on her American apathy and provincialism. Ben Stevenson becomes the only intriguing character in this dull roster, perhaps in part because he is unexpectedly relegated to the margins halfway in. Played by Greenwood with swishy, flamboyant relish, he otherwise remains stuck in the celluloid closet, his homosexuality serving as an open secret that draws our attention to the film’s overarching PG-rated evasiveness.

When an uncomprehending Cunxin asks what a “chink” is after a passerby addresses him as one, Ben responds with a pitying half-smile, and explains that the slur means a crack through which a joyful shaft of light can shine through. Turning this under-the-rug approach into a touching Hallmark moment, Beresford not only displays his inability to work up a sweat over his potentially complex material, but also his willingness to indulge in the prevailing stereotype that Asian men respond to American racism with naiveté or Zen acceptance. As in most Western films that attempt to translate Chinese culture through the lens of their own touristic fascination, each dramatic turning point seems designed to echo catchwords like “honor,” “loyalty,” and “perseverance.” When the film reaches its half-assed political-thriller climax, in which Cunxin falls prey to the deceptions of an evil Chinese official who believes him a poor ambassador of Maoist ideology, it finally reveals itself as a B-movie mockery of the political intimidation that continues to oppress Chinese artists to this day. Beresford’s account of history is so remote, so lacking in urgency, and so safely packaged in stale biopic conventions that it inhibits our most basic recognition of the story’s contemporary relevance.