Somewhere in Shandong province, as Red Chinese officials look on, a young child is discovered to have unique capabilities. Taken from his loving family, his discoverers send him to a place of strenuous discipline and education, where he gradually rises to international prominence—bringing joy and beauty to millions after a time of soul-searching and self betrayals. If this seems like a déjà vu-ish narrative, brace yourself for the happy news: this time it’s ballet instead of boring old Buddhism.
Mao’s Last Dancer, a new film by the steeply irregular Bruce Beresford (he’s made brilliance like Breaker Morant and Dark Robe, and dreck like Driving Miss Daisy), is mostly a set up for massive tearjerker effect. Based on the true story of Li Cunxin, who was trained in Beijing during the period between Communist China and the arbitrary mix of West and old guard that still marks the mainland today, the film cross-cuts between Cunxin’s dewy-eyed arrival at the Houston Ballet and his rigorous dance and Little Red Book training back home. The pacing is deceptive. Sometimes boringly glacial, at other times, Berseford shows a poet’s gift for economy and feeling.
But the true payoff — besides a number of lyrical dance scenes from Swan Lake and Rites of Spring — comes in the final moments, when Cunxin’s world comes together. If you can resist the slobbery joys of Beresford’s film then, you probably should have gone to see The Expendables a second time.