Mao’s Last Dancer

Year: 2009
Director: Bruce Beresford
Writer: Jan Sardi/Li Cunxin
Cast: Chi Cao, Bruce Greenwood, Kyle MacLachlan, Joan Chen, Aden Young, Jack Thompson, Penne Hackforth-Jones

I'd never associated Bruce Beresford with anything this melodramatic before, but when you're selling a movie this wide for a global audience plenty of Holly-coddles are going to find their way in.

Li Cunxin (Cao) is scouted as a child from his rural home to be taken off to a boarding school/prison-like dance academy in Beijing, part of an effort of the government to prove China's cultural superiority.

He grows up in training and becomes a pro, answering an invite to dance for a prestigious ballet company in Houston and learning that most of what he's been told about the West is a lie. His 're-education' is portrayed in a couple of obtuse and hammy scenes like when he listens to the husband of a co-worker (Young) complain about the Reagan government and looks fearfully around the nightclub waiting for the secret police to descend.

It's an overblown gesture to portray a story element that should have been much more subtle and the whole film takes the same approach, painting every emotion and incident with such broad thematic strokes it feel like a kids' film. The acting, particularly from the amateurish Cao, doesn't help.

Li falls in love with one of the up and coming dance troupe girls (Schull), and the climax is a fairly toothless night of political wrangling when the authorities tell Li he has to go back to China and take him prisoner in the Houston embassy while his friends, lawyer and new wife fret and agitate outside.

To entertain yourself between long stretches of eye-rolling melodrama and neon sign turns of the story you can play spot the Aussie and if you're quick enough you might even see the most unforgivable error in a movie in recent years. In the digital post production age, you'd think they could remove a street sign in Sydney's Surry Hills Sydney from the frame when it's supposed to be suburban Houston.

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