I never expected this to be the year I glimpsed Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring in two new movies. First I saw Parisians jeer the ballet's controversial 1913 debut in Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky. And now, at a climactic moment in Mao's Last Dancer, I have seen Texans rapturously greet a 1986 performance starring the Chinese dancer Li Cunxin (Chi Cao).
I like this film, which features much beautiful dancing. Based on Li's autobiography, Mao's Last Dancer strikes inspiring notes in telling the story of this young man, who married Liz Mackey (Amanda Schull), an American dancer, in order not to have to return to the repressive People's Republic of China.
In its beginning sequences, Mao's Last Dancer jumps around in time. First we see Li's 1981 arrival as an exchange student with the Houston Ballet. Then come scenes with Li as a young boy (Wen Bin Huang). In 1972, state functionaries deem him promising, and they remove him from his family and village so he can study dance in Beijing. Later, as an adolescent (Chengwu Guo), Li flirtatiously rehearses a pas de deux with a young ballerina - in front of a colossal portrait of Mao, who was responsible for large-scale horrors that this film only hints at. By the time Li travels to Texas, he is a superb dancer.
Li's early scenes in Houston are entertaining, fish-out-of-water stuff. He is wide-eyed when he visits a disco and a shopping mall, and appalled when his host, Houston Ballet director Ben Stevenson (Bruce Greenwood), buys Li new clothes costing several times what Li's family makes in a year.
Ben is the film's most interesting character. He has made Li's visit possible by carefully cultivating Chinese ties, and he is horrified when Li imperils them by marrying Liz. But he is fond of Li and - as he admits - selfishly interested in keeping him around, for the sake of the Houston Ballet. Ben is present at a dramatic confrontation, when the newlywed Li is detained at the Chinese consulate. After high-level diplomatic negotiations, the consul (Ferdinand Hoang) tells Li he is free to go - but he will never return to China.
Like the excellent Sugar, which screened here last year, Mao's Last Dancer finds pathos and humor in a story about immigration. Director Bruce Beresford (Tender Mercies, Driving Miss Daisy) also finds ambiguities, though the ambiguities are more striking and interesting in Sugar, about a Dominican kid who comes to the U.S. to play baseball but never gets out of the minor leagues. Mao's Last Dancer is a success story. Sugar is something else.