Year Released: 2010
Directed by: Bruce Beresford
Starring: Chi Cao, Bruce Greenwood, Chengwu Guo
(PG, 117 min.)
Genre: Art House and Internal, Drama, Musical and Performing Arts
“In order to fly, you have to be free.” – Li Cunxin
Another undiscovered gem to watch at home on your big screen. And it’s free on Amazon Prime streaming. Not only will you enjoy this true story about a poor Chinese boy who becomes an international ballet dancer, but you will find a new respect for the art itself.
Mao's Last Dancer is the inspiring true story of Li Cunxin and his extraordinary journey from a poor upbringing in rural China to international stardom as a world-class ballet dancer. Based on the best selling autobiography, the film weaves a moving tale about the quest for freedom and the courage it takes to live your own life. It compellingly captures the struggles, sacrifices and triumphs, as well as the intoxicating effects of first love and celebrity amid the pain of exile.
With China now owning so much of current Hollywood, perhaps this 2010 film would not be made today, since it shows a less than positive picture of China in the early 80s. However, the film was made in Australia, where the real life Li Cunxin now lives, so perhaps that is a moot point.
While it is very easy to find films depicting the horrors of the Nazi era, we find few actually portraying the over 100 million who have died under repressive communist regimes. To Live and The Lives of Others are two exceptions, though I note that the former was banned in China and its director and star were placed under gag orders. To Live depicted all too well the brutal upheavals of the communist revolution in this poignant saga of one family trying to survive its embrace.
Actually, Mao’s Last Dancer is somewhat mild in its depiction of the Chinese under Mao. We watch 11-year-old Li examined rather like a horse at auction when he auditions for Madame Mao’s Dance Academy. His neck is turned, his arms and legs stretched, his body bent over not cruelly, perhaps not even forcibly, but certainly without any thought as to his discomfort. Maybe it's that way in all competitive countries, though.
Although his family and the entire village are thrilled he is chosen, Li himself is not. In fact, he is a rather mediocre pupil, and he is mocked by one of the staunch Maoist teachers there. The other teacher Mr. Chan (Ji Feng Sun), sees Li’s potential, and tells him a story that will change his whole life.
It is the story of an ancient warrior that wants to be a great archer, but he finds himself too weak to pull back the greatest of the bows. He becomes strong by carrying heavy logs and finally, pulling back the bow seems like nothing a all.
This story and the mentorship are very much like the advice Ned gives young Will Stoneman in Iron Will to prepare him for a 522-mile dog sled race:
“Run with the moon, embrace the darkness, grow hard with the cold.”
The teacher Chan, about to be dismissed because of his admiration for Western style ballet, secretly gives Li a video as a departing gift. In it Baryshnikov leaps in the air like a very well muscled gazelle, giving Li the final inspiration he needs.
To build up his legs Li runs with weights attached. When he asks for more weights, the clerk scoffs.
“With that much weight, you won’t even be able to walk.”
“But I don’t want to walk. I want to fly,” replies Li.
And fly he does, especially in America, where he learns that “…in order to fly, you have to be free.” The ensuing story of his struggles to stay in America and the repercussions it has on Li and his family back home are poignant, but what really keeps us watching is the magic of the ballet.
This is an art steeped in discipline and athletics. Too many depictions of it entail the female prima ballerina and make short shrift of the males. That shortcoming is remedied here as we gasp at the sheer power and exuberance of Li as he propels himself into the air, seeming to defy the laws of gravity.
A must see.
The day Li leaves his small village to audition for Madame Mao’s Dance Academy, his mother gives him his favorite food to the journey, Pork Dumplings.
These are just delicious, and can be a full course or appetizers. Just the thing to munch on while you watch the very dazzling ballet performances in the film.
Chinese Pork Dumplings
"These tasty treats make a perfect appetizer or you can serve them as a main dish. For a main dish count on about 15 dumplings per person. Serve with hoisin sauce, hot Chinese-style mustard and toasted sesame seeds." –Lorna
100 (3.5 inch square) wonton wrappers
1 3/4 pounds ground pork
1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger root
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons thinly sliced green onion
4 tablespoons soy sauce
3 tablespoons sesame oil
1 egg, beaten
5 cups finely shredded Chinese cabbage
In a large bowl, combine the pork, ginger, garlic, green onion, soy sauce, sesame oil, egg and cabbage. Stir until well mixed.
Place 1 heaping teaspoon of pork filling onto each wonton skin. Moisten edges with water and fold edges over to form a triangle shape. Roll edges slightly to seal in filling. Set dumplings aside on a lightly floured surface until ready to cook.
To Cook: Steam dumplings in a covered bamboo or metal steamer for about 15 to 20 minutes. Serve immediately.