Mao’s Last Dancer (2009)

Trying to write down what I think about Mao’s Last Dancer is like unpacking a Russian doll. There are stories within stories within stories.

The reviews tell a story about the film’s reception. Critics were harsher than I expected, oddly saying both that the movie was bland and that it was melodramatic.

Included on the disc is the filmmaker’s story of how the movie was made, which made the whole thing sound like a minor miracle. The casting was challenging because in addition to a fantastic Chinese-speaking ballet dancer who could play Li, they needed a whole set of kids to play Li and his ballet classmates at age 11, and a whole set of teenagers to play Li and his ballet classmates at age 15. They also had to choreograph and stage a bunch of different ballet performances in different styles: a Chinese imitation of a Western ballet, a Chinese revolutionary ballet, Don Quixote, Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring (familiar to me as the cartoon evolution of life on Earth in Disney’s Fantasia).

In 2003 Penguin published Mao’s Last Dancer, the autobiography of Li Cunxin, who is still alive and was consulted during filming. It must be strange to see your life made into a movie. I don’t think I’d like it.

Two cultures clash: Mao’s communist ideals and the American dream. Unsurprisingly, the movie teaches that it is better to live rich and free in the West than poor and oppressed by Party members who do not tolerate ideas that conflict with their doctrines.

And there is the plot of the movie itself (see below).

You see what I mean about the recursive nature of the story? There’s the story of the reception of this particular biopic; the story of the making of the film; the story in the film itself; the story in the autobiography the film was based on; the memories that the autobiography was based on; and the real-world cultural backdrop of the dancer’s life.

I’m still not clear on the title. The name “Mao” conjures up the Chairman, but Li was chosen by representatives of Madame Mao, not Chairman Mao, to learn ballet at the Beijing Dance Academy. I’m not sure why he was called the “last”, unless perhaps he was the last child selected during tryouts.

This movie, like Jiro Dreams of Sushi and Kings of Pastry, was a gift from my in-laws.

https://itunes.apple.com/us/movie/maos-last-dancer/id424153088

Keep reading for a plot summary with SPOILERS in the form of a beat sheet in the style described in Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat.

Continue reading Mao’s Last Dancer (2009)

China in Ten Words by Yu Hua

China in Ten Words offers an astonishing look under the shiny veneer of modern China. Yu Hua’s life experiences make for fascinating, if sometimes gruesome, sad, absurd, or horrifying stories. The essays don’t pull punches.

Yu Hua isn’t technically a Chinese dissident, since in China he enjoys fame as a respected novelist, yet this book was not, could not have been published on the mainland because he talks about the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, still a taboo (censored) subject in the PRC.

I’m so glad I read China in Ten Words, because it seems that almost all the other nonfiction books I’ve read about China were written by outsiders. An exception (the exception?) is a book I read in 2013 called Life and Death in Shanghai, a powerful memoir by a woman named Nien Cheng who lived through the Cultural Revolution. She was older and much more privileged than Yu Hua, whose upbringing was rural and far less comfortable, but she suffered more as a result of her special status.

Yu Hua’s book is organized around ten words, but the essays aren’t about the words themselves. The words just serve as concise labels.

More on the ten essays below.

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Dreaming in Chinese by Deborah Fallows

Since I’ve read other books about Chinese language and culture, since I’ve studied Mandarin Chinese, and since I live in a partly Chinese-speaking environment, many of the sparkling, shining, fascinating bits of trivia embedded in Dreaming In Chinese were no surprise to me. But even I learned a thing or two.

The author’s words paint a picture of a difficult but rewarding sojourn. The writing is clear and concise, warm and insightful. This is a short, entertaining, accessible book on an interesting topic.

When and Why I Read Dreaming in Chinese

This expat’s view of Chinese language and culture sounded like it would be interesting.

Genre: non-fiction (travel, language, China)
Date started / date finished:  20-Mar-17 to 25-Mar-17
Length: 212 pages
ISBN: 9780802779144 (paperback)
Originally published in: 2010
Amazon link: Dreaming In Chinese

Out of Mao’s Shadow by Philip P. Pan

In Out of Mao’s Shadow, Harvard graduate and Washington Post foreign correspondent Philip P. Pan does an absolutely fabulous job of drawing readers in to the upside-down and inside-out world of modern China by showing us how the lives of a handful of specific Chinese people have been affected by recent events in China’s tumultuous history.

The stories are sympathetic towards the people whose lives the author explores and the choices they make, yet he leaves us to form our own judgments about them. Compelling and informative, this book is one I would recommend to anyone who wants to understand China.

If you had to choose between this one and Chinese Whispers by Ben Chu, read this one. Pan provides a unique perspective but doesn’t take the debunking tack that Chu does. Pan’s writing is more like Peter Hessler’s, though his tone is somber while Hessler’s in Country Driving is humorous at times.

When and Why I Read Out of Mao’s Shadow

This is one of only a small handful of books that I bought in the period from July 2010 to June 2011 that I have not yet read. China is a topic that interests me, and it was nice to check this book off the list of books waiting patiently to be read. I didn’t necessarily expect to enjoy it as much as I did.

Genre: non-fiction (politics, history, China)
Date started / date finished:  06-Feb-17 to 13-Feb-17
Length: 326 pages
ISBN: 9781413595519 (paperback)
Originally published in: 2008
Amazon link: Out of Mao’s Shadow

Wrong Way Around Magic by Ruth Chew

Ruth Chew writes books that take kids on magic adventures. In Wrong Way Around Magic, the only magic is a pair of field glasses (binoculars) that takes two kids to some place which is probably pre-modern China, though the text never really says.

When and Why I Read Wrong Way Around Magic

I was trying to figure out whether the plot involved time travel because a book blogger asked me about it.

Genre: children’s fiction (fantasy)
Date started / date finished:  22-Jan-17 to 22-Jan-17
Length: 128 pages
ISBN: 0590460234 (paperback)
Originally published in: 1993
Amazon link: Wrong Way Around Magic

 

Chinese Whispers by Ben Chu

In Chinese Whispers, a Brit with a British/Chinese family background tackles seven commonly believed myths about China:

  • China has an ancient and fixed culture.
  • The Chinese are irredeemably racist.
  • The Chinese don’t want freedom.
  • China has the world’s finest education system.
  • The Chinese live to work.
  • The Chinese have re-invented capitalism.
  • China will rule the world.

Unlike many Western authors who write about China, Ben Chu doesn’t think China necessarily poses an alarming threat to the West. Even if his conclusions turn out to be wrong or based on incomplete data, it’s healthy for someone to be out there countering the fears that spring purely from ignorance. The mob always says, “We don’t like what we don’t understand; in fact it scares us,” not just in Beauty and the Beast. This book can help us understand.

See below for what stood out and when and why I read the book.

Continue reading Chinese Whispers by Ben Chu

T’ung Shu: The Ancient Chinese Almanac

T’ung Shu: The Ancient Chinese Almanac is not the almanac itself, but rather an explanation and sample of what is in the almanac, a yearly publication with hundreds of years of history in Chinese culture.

My copy of this explanatory book is a quality hardcover with printing in both red ink and black ink on some pages. See below for what stood out, and when and why I read it.

I’ve never bought a copy of the actual almanac, though I’m sure it’s available in Singapore. Here’s an online version: http://www.dragon-gate.com/tool/almanac/

Continue reading T’ung Shu: The Ancient Chinese Almanac

Two Travelogues by Guy Delisle

There’s a huge difference in style (as well as size) between the Guy Delisle book about Shenzhen and the Guy Delisle book about Jerusalem. In the Shenzhen book, the drawings are darker and fuzzier like pencil or charcoal sketches, whereas the drawings in the Jerusalem book are very clean, with splashes of color added.

I think part of the reason is the separation in time between the books. The Shenzhen book was published in 2006 about a trip in 1997, and the Jerusalem book was published in 2012 about a trip in 2008.

In terms of content, I think I enjoyed the Shenzhen book more. China feels frustrating and foreign… but you’d expect it to. Jerusalem feels if anything more frustrating, since in theory it’s less foreign. The ongoing conflicts there involve the political ideologies and religions of the West. In reading this book, I realized I know very little about those conflicts…

As always, I admire the artist’s nonchalance in the face of daunting situations, and his ability and willingness to transmit his experiences to us in words and pictures. Sometimes the episodes depicted are funny and sometimes they’re not, but they are eye-opening.

More on when and why I read the books below.

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Life and Death in Shanghai by Nien Cheng

Life and Death in Shanghai is an amazing book about an amazing woman. The tone in which she tells her own story is deadpan, but the events are extremely dramatic. If you’ve never read about the Cultural Revolution, it’s eye-opening.

Some of my memories of the book are:

  • how Nien Cheng’s private home was turned into living quarters for several families, and regular household routines were disrupted by food rationing;
  • how when destructive Red Guards came knocking, Nien Cheng tried to preserve, and in only some cases succeeded in preserving, some antiques she had in her house, by relinquishing them to be stored in government museums;
  • and how after she was arrested, she had to live in a freezing concrete cell, where her food was insufficient and her clothing was insufficiently warm, yet she maintained exquisite poise and self-assurance.

A few passages from the book are reproduced below.

Continue reading Life and Death in Shanghai by Nien Cheng