December 21, 2012

Mao's Last Dancer (2009)

Um, the closest thing to a recognizable leading "star" in this movie  is Bruce Greenwood (who isn't really recognizable since I need to link to his name) and this chick from Center Stage


I realize this movie is a bit older than the ones I usually review, but being in China and all, it seemed only appropriate to watch a movie that is so Chinese, it's actually banned here! (eek... I hope the government isn't tracking my computer right now)

So let's dispose of the basics, since I'm assuming most people have not heard of this movie - it's a biography of a Chinese ballet dancer named Li Cunxin, based on the book he wrote of his life. He was born in the 60's, so he grows up during the Cultural Revolution. Only a few minutes into the movie, it was pretty clear why the Chinese government banned it - it is not a flattering portrayal of the government during that time. But the movie is more than half English, which might help sway those opposed to reading a lot of subtitles, and all the dancing segments, of course, have no dialogue at all.

The dancing is incredible. Being a bit of a ballet movie geek, I've seen the good (Black Swan), the bad (Center Stage - but really, so bad it's good), and the ugly (The Company, which I barely stayed awake through). I'll watch just about anything if it has ballet dancing in it. But the dancing here is really breathtaking. After sitting through something like Center Stage, in which the dancing is great but the acting is so horrible, I couldn't help but wonder throughout the movie how difficult casting must have been. The guy who plays Li Cunxin is, of course, a dancer, but plays his speaking parts just fine as well. Then again, his dancing is so amazing I'd probably forgive a fair bit of stiff acting.

But even disregarding the dancing, the story of Li Cunxin's life is enough to make a movie. While some of the events are probably not as extraordinary as we might believe, it gives those of us without firsthand knowledge of life in China during the Revolution a glimpse into what it was like. Some of the practices we find unthinkable still occur today, such as the training of young athletes hundreds of miles from home with no visitation rights for parents. Just think of all those cute Chinese gymnasts at the Olympics and then remember that they have not seen their parents in about ten years. It sure makes you think twice before complaining about a strict youth soccer coach or something. I'm not saying this to criticize the Chinese (and I'm not saying this because I'm afraid of the Chinese government), I just think the movie provides an interesting contrast between American and Chinese culture, shown through the eyes of one man.

I tend to skew toward movies of a decidedly lower quality (it's ok, I know it), so watching something so serious and with no car chases or cheesy romantic scenes might seem out of character. And I've definitely been accused of being biased toward movies set in Asia and/or about Asian people (is that so bad?), but I really think this movie transcends my inclinations and is worth watching, even for those who are either not Asian or do not have an Asian fetish (you know who you are out there).

Final word: You don't have to love ballet to be moved by this movie, but it would certainly help.

1 comment:

  1. I would recommand it to anybody who might have a little curiosity about China to see it, ballet or no ballet.

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