Although at times riveting, “Mao’s Last Dancer” is riddled with sentimental, gratuitously melodramatic moments. The story alone is what makes the movie tolerable, counterbalancing the over-the-top artistic vision.

“Mao’s Last Dancer”

At the Michigan
Samuel Goldwyn

“Mao’s Last Dancer” is the story of Li Cunxin, a Chinese ballet dancer with peasant roots who receives the opportunity to dance in America in the 1980s. The film is adapted from Li’s autobiography and directed by Bruce Beresford (“Driving Miss Daisy”). Upon his arrival in Houston, Li wishes to maintain his Maoist beliefs, but he quickly and happily gets sucked into an American lifestyle of liberal spending and free attitude. Throughout the rest of the film, Li struggles to find a balance between these two distinct worlds.

There’s no denying that “Dancer” is entertaining, as it’s a recreation of a very compelling story. The film does an especially good job at juxtaposing ’80s China and ’80s Texas. The dancing in the film is also quite beautiful; it seizes audiences and transports them to a different kind of theater, making them feel like they’re watching a real ballet.

Newcomer Chi Cao does a convincing job of playing Li. A leader at the Birmingham Royal Ballet Company, Cao dances the part of Li with elegance. He even manages to deliver a solid performance outside of the dancing, believable as the naïve, abashed Chinese peasant experiencing the culture of the United States for the first time.

But along with the intrigue, the film has a few too many senselessly sappy moments. When Li dances in front of an audience in Houston for the first time, he freezes up just as he’s about to begin, and has a dramatic flashback to his childhood in China that’s obviously trying to evoke an emotional reaction. This moment, like many others in the movie, simply feels too contrived.

The film begs its viewers to tear up. Take the moment near the end when Li’s parents come to America to see their son perform professionally for the first time. After he finishes dancing, his parents are escorted on stage, whereupon the family cries incessantly and Li collapses to the ground. Regardless of whether this moment was included in Li’s autobiography, it should have been omitted or portrayed in a different manner in the film. As presented, it feels grossly affected and schmaltzy.

“Mao’s Last Dancer” is worth at least one viewing; Li Cunxin’s true story definitely holds attention. But after that, one may find it too corny to bear.

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