I once had an editor question whether I meant it as an insult when I referred to a film as “middlebrow.” The answer was yes.
Bruce Beresford’s “Mao’s Last Dancer” (opening in limited release Friday, 8/20/10) is a middlebrow film that rises above the pack, if only a little. Based on a true story about Chinese ballet dancer Li Cunxin (played by real-life ballet dancer Chi Cao), it offers familiar tropes, clichéd storytelling and an emotional payoff that can’t help but feel manipulative, barely earned.
Cutting back and forth between past and present, Beresford (working from a script by Jan Sardi, based on Li’s memoir) tells Li’s story from his 1981 arrival in the U.S. at the invitation of the Houston Ballet to study at their school, then fills in the backstory of his early dance training
In 1971, the young Li is selected from his poor rural village to audition for the Beijing Dance Academy, based on his flexibility and agility. He leaves his family behind, moving into a dorm and spending his days exercising, stretching and learning ballet at the hands of strict masters – all under the auspices of Mao’s Communist China. At first homesick and weak, Li gradually develops his technique under the tutelage of a kind ballet master (who ultimately is arrested and sent away for reeducation because he’d rather teach classical ballet than a more politically focused Chinese version).
(The film’s best line comes when Madame Mao watches a rehearsal of a classical piece and, when it’s finished, turns to the balletmaster and says, “Where are the guns?”)
Li rises to the top of his class and, when the Houston Ballet’s Ben Stevenson (Bruce Greenwood) selects him to study in Texas, Li sets off on his great adventure. Warned about the corrupting influences of the Americans by the Chinese consul in Houston, Li finds instead that the Americans are friendly, open, welcoming and free.
With the company, Li shines, rising to become a featured performer in a short time. He also finds love, in the form of another student named Liz. As the time approaches for Li to finish his residency and return to China, he balks, seeking legal advice on how he can keep from going back.
It’s all very straightforward, with the battle for Li’s freedom in America giving way to a bittersweet existence (he’s declared persona non grata by China) that proves less joyous than he imagined. The final half-hour of the film seems anticlimactic, as Li rises to become a principal dancer, even as his personal life suffers.
Yet the feelings that this story tries to elicit rarely have the kind of depth that Beresford seeks. Part of this is the script; Sardi obviously understands the pitfalls of a story that hinges on a young man who hasn’t seen his parents in more than a decade, forced to make a choice never to see them again when he decides not to go back to China. Aside from a dream sequence, there is little that indicates just how wrenching this separation is for both sides.
The script in general is flat and feels written, rather than organic. The supporting characters seem more like types than people – including Liz, a drip whose dancing aspirations seem as unlikely as her attraction to Li.
Similarly, the cultural disconnect for Li in America is played for laughs, rather than for the conflict it obviously caused in the young dancer. We rarely get a sense of his confusion, his fear or whatever homesickness he feels. This guy jumps into American life with vigor (after shaking off his initial brainwashing by the consul).
And the culture clash between American and Chinese doesn’t reflect particularly well on the Americans, who are only too eager to try to bully the Chinese, apparently unaware of who it is they’re dealing with.
The only aspect of the film that really works is the dance photography. Beresford understands how to step back and let the camera capture Cao’s whole figure or even the whole stage. Beresford uses little moments of slow motion to both prolong Cao’s hangtime and to let the viewer truly appreciate the feats being performed. That’s also true in a scene when the young Li surreptitiously watches a contraband videocassette of Mikhail Baryshnikov in his prime, a truly transcendent moment.
Cao, a dancer from China who is now a principal in England, is amazing to watch in action, less compelling when he is forced to act. Greenwood offers a balletmaster who is both a diva and a mentor. Kyle MacLachlan turns up briefly as the attorney handling Li’s immigration claims, but mostly inspires thoughts along the lines of “What happened to his career?”
“Mao’s Last Dancer” wants to be heart-warming and uplifting. And it is – in a completely unchallenging, middlebrow way.