We meet Li, the title character of Mao's Last Dancer, as he's plucked out of his village in rural China and placed in an elite Beijing arts academy. Although he was reluctant to leave his village, Li's superb dancing skills bring him accolades. A teacher who fears arrest because of his love for Western ballet ("Where are the guns?" Madame Mao demands at a recital of one such dance) gives Li a gift, a battered Baryshnikov VHS tape in a wooden box. For the first time he sees the possibilities in what has previously been only a duty. He is inspired.
Based on the autobiography of Li Cunxin, the film is capably directed by Bruce Beresford (Driving Miss Daisy, Breaker Morant), who knows how to tell a story with his camera. In a film without stars (Bruce Greenwood and Kyle MacLachlan headline), the lead is played by an extraordinary dancer, Birmingham Royal Ballet soloist Chi Cao. His acting may pale next to his dance, but this is not inappropriate for a character whose emotions are guarded due to a lifetime of surveillance. Li's award-winning book about his journey from Houston Ballet exchange student to principal dancer succeeds on-screen because of Chi Cao's emotional power as a dancer.
The difference between the state-mandated culture of China's Maoist regime is starkly contrasted with the opportunities for creative freedom that begin to overwhelm Li. The embassy officials fear the pernicious influences of capitalism without understanding his love for dance. And, in an era when media blowhards decry what they see as a loss of liberty in this country, it's instructive to be reminded of what political repression really means.
This kind of rags-to-riches backstage story has been told many times since cinema's infancy. It may be hopelessly retro to say it, but this is the kind of film Hollywood used to make regularly: not focus-grouped to a niche market; suitable for children, adults and grandparents; and dealing with the joys and sorrows of life and art. Mao's Last Dancer is not earth-shattering cinema; it's simply an enjoyable movie.