Bruce Beresford has one of the odder filmographies around—ranging from the very good to the utterly mediocre and stopping off everywhere in between. He’s the Australian filmmaker who turned out to have an apparent affinity with the American South—Tender Mercies (1983), Crimes of the Heart (1986), Driving Miss Daisy (1989), Rich in Love (1992)—something he manages to bring in a small way to the biopic Mao’s Last Dancer with its Houston setting. Even if Houston is more often than not actually Sydney, Australia, there’s still something of the tone of the films named. Depending on how familiar you are with the movies listed above, that might give you some idea of what you’ll find in Mao’s Last Dancer—but only some idea.
Mao’s Last Dancer is based on the autobiography of Chinese ballet dancer Li Cunxin (played as an adult by ballet star Chi Cao), so—among other things—parts of it take place in China (which is generally not played by Sydney). That also means that the film’s drama has much to do with the political and cultural differences between East and West. Unfortunately, this is the least successful aspect of the film. It’s handled about as subtly as a McCarthy-era Americanism vs. Communism class in its depiction of China, and it isn’t much better at depicting the U.S. in terms of little more than the purely materialistic. Call it a Consumerism vs. Communism class. The upshot of all this is that the movie feels weirdly old-fashioned—something that’s exacerbated by the frequent infusions of pure schmaltz.
The schmaltz, however, works a good deal of the time—certainly more than it should. But in the case of what is at bottom a fairly standard biopic, that’s not a bad thing—assuming you’re willing to go with the flow. Beresford—and some shrewd casting—makes it not only easy to do that, but hard not to do. It’s less the main character than the supporting cast that sells the film. Quite honestly, Chi Cao is rarely more than adequate in the lead, but since dancing ability probably trumped acting skill, that’s at least partly understandable. Surrounding Chi Cao with actors like Bruce Greenwood as Houston Ballet director Ben Stevenson (refreshingly played as gay without the fact ever being mentioned), Kyle MacLachlan as immigration lawyer Charles Foster and Joan Chen as Li’s mother helps immensely. As does the fact that Beresford knows the only way to deal with schmaltz is to just go ahead and embrace it.
There are several strong moments in the film: notably, the arrest of one of Li’s most sympathetic teachers (Su Zhang) as a counter-revolutionary and the standoff at the Chinese consulate in Houston. But what finally sells the film—apart from the dancing—is the emotionally charged final act. While the big emotional moment is as old as the hills—or at least as old as the ending of Leo McCarey’s Going My Way (1944)—it’s played so well (and with a nice touch of humor at the end) that it doesn’t matter in the least. This is also the one section—the Rite of Spring ballet itself—where Beresford goes fully cinematic in shooting the dancing. The coda to this may be inessential, but it’s in a similar and agreeable tone and it would be churlish to complain about it.
Make no mistake, this is not a great movie, but it is an immensely likable one—and balletomanes will likely get a little more mileage out of it. Rated PG for a brief violent image, some sensuality, language and incidental smoking.