From Red China to Reagan’s America

Mao’s Last Dancer has three faces—but don’t fear. It isn’t at all like The United States of Tara. We meet Li Cunxin (pronounced “Lee Scwin-sing”), a rural peasant boy (played by Huang Wen Bin) from Mao’s Red China. There’s also the teenager “middle Li” (Chengwu Guo), and “adult Li” (Chi Cao), who ends up in America. Together, they tell a story of one man’s journey to freedom through pain’s doors.

Mao’s Last Dancer is a fluid movie, running back and forth from Red China to Reagan’s America, ignoring conventional narratives along the way. At times adult Li’s flashbacks, combined with historical footage (including professional hysterics grieving over Emperor Mao’s death, for example) convey context too.  Its pace is fortunately never too fast for viewers, or hard to follow. Li’s late past and recent past are inseparable bedfellows.

Li is one of the last students to graduate from Madam Mao’s Beijing Dance Academy, hence the movie’s title. But don’t let that worry you either. Under communist law, a child is born to serve the state. Although we don’t know exactly why Li is chosen to dance, we witness a man assuring officials that the child isn’t from bourgeois stock. Phew. There are no known landowners in his family, so the grasshopper passes some cultural purity test, in a state often fixated on class warfare, driven by the cult of personality, and bullied by paranoia. 

(The Cultural Revolution, from 1966 to 1976, was full of paradoxes, according to The Black Book of Communism, 1999, page 513: “First, it was a movement when extremism seemed almost certain to carry the day, and when the revolutionary process seemed solidly institutionalized, having swept through all the centers of power in a year. But at the same time it was a movement that was extremely limited in scope, hardly spreading beyond the urban areas and having a significant impact on schoolchildren”—as Li discovered.) 

Visually speaking, Mao’s Last Dancer is also a Chinese feast. Like The Last Emperor, eloquently managing to take our eyes on a journey through China’s unfamiliar landscapes but never off her dark poverty (or her darker secrets), it manages somehow to display a maturity so lacking today. Yet, it is the dancers people come for, also bursting with colour. And life.

Thanks to dance choreographers Graeme Murphy and Janet Vernon, and world-class dancers “on loan” from the Australian Ballet and Sydney Dance Company, audiences are treated to an eclectic range of dance traditions, from Red China to the United States, from classical to contemporary. 

Comparisons could also be made with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which introduced my eyes at least to the grey world between martial arts and dance-like moves. Here, effeminate poses take a back seat to a masculine physicality. Li, who is also China’s strong dancer, could easily be mistaken for a combat soldier, or first-class athlete. Muscle power rules. Art and sweat are comrades. Forget tutus. This is an endurance sport, on so many levels. Think power-driven jumps, twists, turns, lifts.

Director Bruce Beresford never shies away from focusing on the warm-heartedness of peasants or the cold politically-correct times they find themselves in. Li’s early journey from rural village to big city can be viewed as a journey from humble family to imperial capital, but it is also a journey from poverty to material security; an opportunity and a loss. Transported to a communist dance factory, Li finds himself crying at night, alone and inconsolable, until fellow students make fart noises for laughs.

Later, we meet middle Li, the talented teen dancer, and his politically unacceptable tutor (who is whisked to God knows where for committing artistic thought crimes). This is no boarding school experience, to be sure. There are no family weekends or sunny beach holidays. Like Li the boy, Li the teenager is part of a real stolen generation. The state wins! They can even make teen boys dance!

For now. While Mao’s communists, as far as I can tell, didn’t blame the West for “global warming”, the mean and extreme left-wing indoctrination processes are a dark comedian’s paradise. The movie—from Li’s best-selling autobiography—isn’t afraid to visit (or revisit) teachers brainwashing young subjects. The West is, to put it lightly, the great Satan, too evil to contemplate. Nor does Beresford run away from the subject of China’s politically correct killing fields.

Obviously, our central character becomes an international success. Early on, we see Li, the man, arriving in Houston, Texas, in the 1980s. His defection seems like a natural choice. Reagan’s America appears to be a consumers’ paradise, with a vibrant cultural heart. There are even references to Vice-President Bush and his wife Barbara’s support of the ballet.

I appreciated the movie’s honesty. It spotlights some warts on the world’s most powerful democracy, while steadfastly refusing to play the moral equivalence card. In one scene, adult Li wonders out loud why an individual calls him a “chink” in Houston, and in another scene we see Chinese men pontificating about big-nosed foreigners who all look the same. Yet, there’s a reason why Chinese people defect to America and Americans never defect to China. For one thing, as Li discovers, a man at a disco isn’t sent to a gulag for criticising Reagan. And it’s Red China, not Texas, that makes an international issue out of Li’s inter-racial relationship with a white capitalist she-devil.

Mao’s last dancer feels deeply. He is torn between his love for family and his new love for fellow dancer Elizabeth (Amanda Schull), so emotional conflict is always just around the corner. But how many of us have to deal with the issue of defection? Li’s predicament, therefore, naturally draws attention to the many ways in which relationships are politicised by the media, state, and artists themselves. No relationships are ever simple, but few are so complex.

Li is a famous example of a rags-to-riches hero bringing in the tickets, but one of the most interesting American-based characters is Ben Stevenson (Bruce Greenwood), the artistic director of the Houston Ballet. He’s responsible for introducing us to the young talent; but happily takes the role as a nurturer of talent too. In addition to opening up his home to a badge-wearing Maoist, he is dragged into Li’s political dramas.

Li (the man, not the movie character) is now a heretical capitalist, living in Chairman Rudd’s Australia. In a recent interview with Reuters Toronto, Li said:

“My biggest accomplishment is not all the accolades I got in my dancing career, not all the money I’ve made as a stock broker, not the accolades from my book, it’s actually being recognised with the Australian Father of the Year award.”

Revealingly, workers on the $25 million production were physically intimidated by Red Chinese officials, forcing at least one person to take extreme action. According to the Australian:

“Some film equipment had to be smuggled to the Chinese set after Chinese fears ahead of the Beijing Olympics resulted in stricter freight controls … Yet [producer Jane] Scott continued to film in the mountains an hour north of Beijing without a permit, amid threats of halting the production, confiscation of film footage and detention.”


Ben-Peter Terpstra is a regular contributor on film to Quadrant Online.



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