Mao’s Last Dancer, Blu-ray (2009/2011)
Director: Bruce Beresford
Starring: Chi Cao, Bruce Greenwood, Kyle MacLachlan, Joan Chen
Studio: 20th Century Fox [5/3/11]
Video: 1.85:1 for 16:9 1080p HD
Audio: English & Chinese DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1
Subtitles: English, Spanish
Extras: “The Making of Mao’s Last Dancer”
Length: 117 minutes
A lovely and inspiring drama based on the true story of Li Cunxin, as detailed in his autobiography. At age 11 he was taken from a poor backroads Chinese village by cultural delegates from Madame Mao and started in a strict ballet school in Beijing, where he struggled with not understanding ballet plus being small and weak compared to the other students. However, he persevered, with tips from an understanding instructor, built up his body, and eventually became a world famous ballet dancer.
He was brought first to Houston, Texas in a cultural exchange in 1979, and the scene of first meeting his hugging Texan hosts at the airport is priceless. He falls in love with an American dancer in the Houston company, and soon realizes he must risk everything in order to defect and stay in the U.S. There is a tense scene in the Chinese consulate when the Chinese in effect kidnap Li to send him back to China. Finally, by defecting he learns he will be barred from visiting China and perhaps ever seeing his parents again. He goes on to be a principal dancer with the Houston Ballet and later the Australian Ballet. In the process his marriage with the American ballet dancer fails due partly to her not having achieved his level of performance. The latter history of the characters in the film during the closing credits is appreciated.
The acting of all concerned is excellent. The producers had to use three different Chinese actors to represent Li at various stages of his life, and the second two had to be very good ballet dancers. Generous excerpts of various ballets – including The Rite of Spring, when his parents are finally brought over from China to see him perform – are seen with the leading actor Chi Cao doing the dancing.
Blu-ray quality is excellent. Probably on standard DVD one wouldn’t notice much difference, but the cinematographer used only half the 36mm frame for all the scenes shot in China in the past, to give a grainy flashback quality without going to black and white. The ballet excerpts are quite spectacular, as is the scenery around the small Chinese village which was a standin for Cunxin’s actual village, which was now razed for high-rise apartment buildings. One of the few humorous things in the film is one of the Houston Ballet group staring at a portrait of Mao while they sit at the consulate in support of Cunxin and saying, “Now I understand why my relative had a cat named Chairman Meow.”
— John Sunier