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Cinema in Focus: ‘Mao’s Last Dancer’

The autobiographical tale follows Li Cunxin's journey to freedom

3 Stars — Powerful

The autobiographical tale Mao’s Last Dancer by Li Cunxin not only describes his own journey to freedom but that of China’s as well.

Starting out as a child in a nation under Mao’s oppressive control, Li ends his life in a world where China is a respecter of international marriage laws and grants many personal freedoms. This cultural and political change made Li’s own journey possible.

Directed by Bruce Beresford (Driving Miss Daisy and Paradise Road) with screenwriter Jan Sardi (The Notebook), Mao’s Last Dancer is a well-told story of political and personal transformation. The title role is played by three actors: Wen Bin Huang as a child, Chengwu Guo as a teenager and Chi Cao as an adult.

Li’s story begins in the early 1970s when he is a young schoolboy in an agrarian province but chosen by an official from Beijing’s ballet school. Over the next decade, Li transforms from a weak and provincial child into a passionate dancer. As China opens to the world, the world-renowned director of the Houston Ballet, Ben Stevenson (Bruce Greenwood), visits Beijing, sees Li’s obvious talent and invites Li to Houston to dance with his troupe.

Having been told that the rest of the world lived in unbearable darkness, Li’s eyes are opened and, when a chance romance with Elizabeth Mackey (Amanda Schull) develops, he decides to get married and remain in America. He does so not only for love but also for his art as Li enjoys the freedom to dance in classic and modern styles not allowed in China. But with his choice, he is also forbidden from returning to China. It is this loss that haunts Li and impacts his marriage.

We won’t spoil the outcome of the story and how Li’s and China’s mutual growth come to a moving climax that celebrates the new freedoms of both, but it is an amazing tale all the more impactful because it is true. Freedom is a powerful motivator in both our personal and political lives. Like the powerful ballet presented in the film as Li learns how to express his strength and passion, the passion for freedom is something that moves all of us.

Discussion:

» When Li’s parents are reunited with him, they express an obvious pride in him. This universal love of parents for children is true in every culture and every political system. Where do you think this parental love originates — from a biological or a spiritual place?

» What do you think Ben means when he observes that the Chinese dancers are more like athletes than dancers?

» What do you think broke up Li and Liz?

— Cinema in Focus is a social and spiritual movie commentary. Hal Conklin is former mayor of Santa Barbara and Denny Wayman is pastor of Free Methodist Church, 1435 Cliff Drive. For more reviews, visit www.cinemainfocus.com.

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