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.

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.

My Beat Sheet for Mao’s Last Dancer

Opening Image
Li, a young Chinese man is welcomed to the US at an airport in Texas in the 80s.

We learn how Li was chosen from a large family in a rural village to learn ballet in Beijing.

One of Li’s dance teachers in China tells him a story of persistence to inspire him to develop his strength.

Break Into Two
Li is chosen to go to the US as an exchange student to continue learning ballet.

B Story / The Promise of the Premise
Li arrives in the US and starts to learn about American culture. He is amazed by the wealth and freedom people enjoy but is warned by his countryman at the embassy to remember to adhere to communist principles. He starts dating an American girl who is also a ballet dancer. He becomes famous.

The Chinese government says Li must return to China. He does not want to go. After consulting a lawyer, he marries his American girlfriend.

Bad Guys Close In
When Li goes to the embassy to explain his decision, embassy staff kidnap him and lock him up inside. His American friends do everything they can to try to get him out.

Dark Night of the Soul
Li worries about what the government will do to his family if he does not cooperate.

Break Into Three
Li decides remaining in the US is too important a dream to relinquish. The Chinese government finally declares that he is free to stay in the US, but that he can never return to China.

Li’s wife leaves him to join a ballet company in another state. At an important performance with a new partner (an Australian woman), Li is moved when he learns that his parents are in the audience. The government has allowed them to travel to see him!

Final Image
The Chinese government allows Li to return to China to visit his home village, where he shows off his ballet skills.