LITTLE ROCK Australian Bruce Beresford is one of those reliably crafty directors who balance a sweet tooth for emotion (Driving Miss Daisy is his best-known movie; Tender Mercies is his best) with the sort of tasteful restraint that registers as “quality.” So it’s hardly surprising that Mao’s Last Dancer somehow makes the extraordinary true story it’s based on seem like common corn while succeeding in modest ways.
In other words, it’s a mediocre movie elevated by a couple of sly performances: Bruce Greenwood’s funny turn as Houston Ballet director Ben Stevenson, which tiptoes up to the edge but avoids nasty stereotype; and a quiet actor named Zhang Su who supplies the hero with an inspiring clip of Mikhail Baryshnikov flying on a grainy VHS tape. And, for ballet fans, there’s lots of dancing - although Beresford doesn’t seem to have much of a feel for it, relying overmuchon slow-motion shots.
Yet the movie is freighted by the knowledge that a Chinese peasant’s son named Li Cunxin (played as an adult by Chi Cao, a dancer with the Birmingham Royal Ballet who acts well enough) did make the journey from China’s Shandong province to the Beijing Dance Academy and on to Houston,where he was seduced by the decadent opulence of the West and, very probably, called a “Chink.”
When this happens in the film, Li asks his mentor Stevenson what it means, eliciting a disingenuous lie about the word being some sort of oblique reference to Li’s inner light. No doubt that’s one of the truest moments of the movie, because people do say lame things when they can’t bring themselves to disillusion an innocent.
Beresford tells the story largely through the use of flashbacks, which employ a grainier,less saturated film stock that somehow feels more convincing than the scenes set in 1981 Houston, which feels TV-movie flat. Li is alternately shocked by Stevenson’s profligacy - he spends as much in a couple of hours shopping at the mall as Li’s family makes in a decade! - and amazed by the cavalier way Americans criticize their leaders and grow their facial hair.
All this probably accurately reflects Li’s memoir, but the juxtaposition with the somber flashbacks sometimes gives the impression that Li has escaped into a ’70s-era sitcom. All he needs is the wacky neighbor, to go with his quickly acquired Texas girlfriend Elizabeth (Amanda Schull, herself a ballerina who acts - a little).
Yet aside from one indescribably awful bedroom scene played between Li and Elizabeth, and its simplistic politics (yes, the Cultural Revolution was a very bad thing indeed, but Western extravagance hardly seems a moral antidote), Mao’s Last Dancer is, in the end, kind of OK.
Sure, it’s at heart a backstage melodrama - Li’s last-minute big break is a cliche - but it’s at least subtle enough to recognize that art can be a great solvent. Li’s education is ultimately not political but sentimental.