Sunday, 28 February 2010


Available on Blu-ray March 4
Roadshow Entertainment

When an opening title reads Houston, 1981 but we are witnessing what is clearly present day Sydney, I feared that Bruce Beresford's film, an adaptation of the bestselling autobiography by Li Cunxin, had blown any chance of authenticity from the beginning. But then the film flashes back to the Chinese countryside (actually shot on location) in 1972 and the childhood of Cunxin, and my worries were somewhat allayed.

Cunxin is chosen by communist party officials to study ballet at Madam Mao's Beijing Dance Academy. The youngster struggles at first, without his family and the army-like demands of his instructors, but he eventually becomes the schools principal male dancer.

Rare for the times, 1980 and the height of the Cold War, Cunxin (played as an adult by Chi Cao) is allowed to travel to the US for a stint with the Houston Ballet Company. This is where the film opens and Cunxin is met by Houston Ballet's artistic director, Ben Stevenson (Bruce Greenwood), who lavishes gifts on the talented dancer and bedazzles him with the ways of the West. Cunxin is soon seduced, by America but even more so by fellow dancer, Elizabeth (Amanda Schull), whom he marries and causes a diplomatic row by defecting to the US.

Cunxin's story makes for great reading and telling; the book has been a bestseller, particularly in Australia where the now-retired dancer resides with his second wife and their children. And no doubt Beresford saw the dramatic potential for the story as a film. But for everything Beresford gets right – Cunxin's childhood, the dance sequences – there are those he doesn't. The Australian settings and actors (Jack Thompson, Penne Hackforth-Jones, Aiden Young) may not be distracting for a foreign audience but they were for me. And despite his best efforts, leading man Cao was cast more for his dance prowess than his acting ability.

These quibbles aside, Mao's Last Dancer is ultimately an emotional viewing experience, one which close to a million Australians enjoyed given that it grossed $15 million domestically. It should have similar success on DVD and, when it finally releases, should play just as well to overseas audiences.

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