Mao’s Last Dancer

The movie “Mao’s Last Dancer” is a sleeper hit, says the Los Angeles Times:

It features no big-name stars, drew mediocre reviews and traffics in the esoterica of Chinese ballet.

And yet “Mao’s Last Dancer,” the true story of a ballet performer who defected to the United States in 1981, has become one of the season’s biggest art-house hits.

Bruce Beresford’s Australian-produced film tells of Li Cunxin, an 11-year-old Chinese boy plucked from his rural village in 1972 under the reign of Mao Zedong to dance for the Beijing Ballet. While in residence at the Houston Ballet a decade later, he defected to the United States after a politically charged standoff that involved the FBI and diplomats from China and the U.S.

It’s been in theaters for three months, and I finally saw it this weekend. You can’t usually wait that long to see an indie film, but this one’s been hanging on under the radar. It’s a great story about Chinese communism, politically controlled art, and one individual who chooses freedom. In a climactic scene, the Chinese consul tells Li “the Party knows what’s best for you” and Li responds, “I know what’s best for me.” (The language is a little different in Li’s autobiography.)

The New York Times dismisses the movie as “nothing more than an old-fashioned tear-jerker,” complaining that it is

stuck in an earlier era of heavy-handed clichés about Chinese innocence and American experience. The juxtaposition of wide-eyed villagers and labored aphorisms with shopping malls and casual sex may accurately reflect Mr. Li’s book, but on screen it feels absurdly outdated.

Um, yes. The movie is set between 1972 and 1981. That was Mao’s China, even the China of the Cultural Revolution and the Gang of Four, and then the very earliest days of the liberalization under Deng Xiao-ping. Today it looks dated, as do most movies set 30 or more years in the past. Anyone who has visited China recently might not realize just how stunning the Houston skyline would have looked to Li in 1981. But I saw the Shanghai skyline seven years later, in 1988, and I know that Houston would have seemed a different world to Li at that time.

No doubt the Times reviewer also disliked the scenes in Chinese schools where students are told that China has the highest standard of living in the world, while the “capitalist and imperialist nations” live in unimaginable horror. And maybe the scene of Madame Mao visiting the Beijing ballet academy and demanding that the students perform only revolutionary ballet. But that was the reality of Maoist China.

I’ve written before about the remarkable dearth of anti-communist movies in Hollywood, especially when you consider that communism lasted far longer and killed far more people than national socialism, about which there have been many movies. Of course, this movie wasn’t produced in Hollywood; it was produced in Australia by the Australian director Bruce Beresford (“Breaker Morant,” “Tender Mercies,” “Driving Miss Daisy”). And “Mao’s Last Dancer” is as much a story of individualism and breaking out of a world that would hold you down (not unlike “Billy Elliott” or “October Sky”) as it is a political movie.

The fact that Li was allowed to visit the Houston Ballet temporarily in 1981 was a sign of the changes that were happening in China, and the country has made much more progress since then. But China is still not comfortable with this story, and the producers were forced to shoot some scenes in secret after being denied permission to film in China.

With Christmas movies coming, “Mao’s Last Dancer” won’t be in theaters much longer. See it now.