Chinese ballet star Li Cunxin, whose 1981 defection made international headlines, gets spotty biopic treatment in “Mao’s Last Dancer.” Leaning heavily on rural childhood flashbacks and boot camp-like training as a teenager in Beijing, the story lights up when world-class performer Chi Cao leaps about as the adult Li, but is marred by lumpy melodrama when the music stops. Pressing just enough buttons to interest dance buffs and older auds, the pic should score Down Under, where the greatly admired Li now lives. It preems domestically Oct. 1, following its Toronto world preem, with a modest international future indicated.
Published in 2003, Li’s popular autobiography seems a natural for the “Shine” team of producer Jane Scott and scripter Jan Sardi. As with “Shine,” the story chronicles an extraordinary artist at three stages of his life, but the realization of “Mao” by veteran helmer Bruce Beresford is much more conventional than the piano pic.
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It’s 1981, and Li (Chi) is a cultural exchange student at the Houston Ballet. Shy and immediately likable, Li takes lodgings with Ben Stevenson (Bruce Greenwood), the company’s British-born artistic director.
The choppy first couple of reels parallel Li’s introduction to capitalist society (disco dancing, amazement at ATMs and shopping malls) with childhood turning points. In 1972 11-year-old Li (Huang Wenbin) is living in backwater Shandong province with a brood of brothers and impoverished parents Niang (Joan Chen) and Dia (Wang Shuangbao).
Plucked from his classroom by stony-faced talent scouts, Li shows sufficient body flexibility to be offered a spot at Madame Mao’s Beijing Dance Academy.
The teenage Li, now played by Guo Chengwu, a real-life Beijing Academy graduate, is mentored by kindly old teacher Chan (Zhang Su) and given a hard time by Gao, a no nonsense drill-instructor type who eventually greenlights the promising youngster’s trip to Houston.
Though hardly flattering, the depiction of Cultural Revolution-era China is not likely to spark diplomatic incident in today’s climate of mutual cooperation.
Adopting a smoother chronological path at the hour mark, Li’s rise is charted with broad strokes reminiscent of a ’30s Warner Bros. backstage musical. Thrust without warning into the lead role in a televised production of “Die Fledermaus,” he freezes in the spotlight for an eternity before winning the day with a sensational performance.
Elsewhere, ’50s melodrama is invoked in Li’s romance with Elizabeth (Amanda Schull, “Center Stage”), a virginal dancer supplied with dialogue that would not be out of place in “Peyton Place.” Li’s later relationship with Australian ballerina Mary (Camilla Vergotis) is much lighter on schmaltz.
Beresford uses full-framed shots and keeps editing to a minimum in service to the excellent dance sequences choreographed by Aussie top gun Graeme Murphy, bringing to mind the unfussy way in which Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were filmed.
Crucially for audience involvement, all three first-time thesps portraying Li are appealing and handle acting chores convincingly. Kyle MacLachlan scores best of the rest as Charles Foster, the straight-talking attorney representing Li during his detention at the Chinese consulate in Houston while attempting to defect.
Lensing his 12th feature for Beresford, Peter James supplies pristine visuals in Houston, with grainy images shot in Beijing and Hairou matching the mood of Li’s early hardships. The lush score by Christopher Gordon blends nicely with pieces by Mozart, Stravinsky and Gershwin. Other tech work is top-notch.
The Chinese character featured in the Smarketing materials translates as “Dancing.”