At a time when any new government program gets equated with brutal, Gulag-level Soviet oppression, films like The Concert and this week's Mao's Last Dancer provide valuable reminders of the realities of life under Communism. Mao's Last Dancer dramatizes the life of Chinese ballet dancer Li Cunxin, and the flashbacks to Red Chinese life evoke nothing so much as George Orwell's 1984. No aspect of everyday life escapes government scrutiny, while omnipresent, Big Brother-style images of Mao adorn seemingly every room and street.
The film begins in 1981 to Li's (Chi Cao's) arrival at Texas airport as part of a cultural exchange program with the Houston Ballet. The ballet's English-born director Ben Stevenson (a deliberately fey Bruce Greenwood) welcomes Li and tries to cushion his culture shock. Li struggles to make the adjustment from Chinese severity to Texas-sized abundance. When Ben takes shopping at the mall, Li demands that he take the clothes back, which represents a fortune in the Chinese standard of living.
Mao's Last Dancer cross cuts to scenes of Li as an impoverished village boy (Wen Bin Huang), as cutesy music proves regrettably reminiscent of Mulan. Young Li passes a flexibility test that secures him a spot at the artistic academy in Beijing. Li's education could be ballet boot camp: "Crying is a sign of weakness!" barks one of his teachers.
As a teenager (Chengwu Guo), Li flourishes under the attention of a kindly instructor, but the older man falls prey of Red China's cultural guardians, who deem classical ballet as insufficiently "counterrevolutionary." Dances with Mao-jacketed ballerinas and pitchfork-waving peasants win official favor in a scene that would be funny if it weren't cruel. Meanwhile, Li and his schoolmates pass around an illicit video of Mikhail Baryshnikov, officially banned after his defection to the West, like it's a forbidden porno tape.
Driving Miss Daisy's Bruce Beresford directs Mao's Last Dancer through a soft-focus haze that tends to muffle the film's sharpest conflicts, while Chi Cao, a trained dancer, reveals a narrow emotional range. Fortunately, Li's emotionally repression and stranger-in-a-strange-land perspective helps compensate for the actor's limitations. He practically goggles at the revelation that Americans can criticize newly elected president Ronald Reagan at a discoteque, without fear of the secret police dragging them off at night. Meanwhile, independent American women prove to be an irresistible temptation.
In a hackneyed plot point worthy of a vintage backstage melodrama, Ben chooses Li to fill in for a major role shortly before a big public performance. Mao's Last Dancer offers a less-clichéd episode involving a standoff between Li's American friends (including Kyle MacLachlan as an immigrant attorney) and Chinese officials at the Houston consulate. Mao's Last Dancer soft-pedals the darker implications of Li's story, but capitalizes on the grace of ballet performances as a counterpoint to the political turbulence on either side of the Bamboo Curtain. Dance comes across as a universal language, and we can use as many of those as we can find.