I saw the movie, Mao’s Last Dancer today. Unlike most Westerners, I went with two people who grew up in China and survived the Cultural Revolution.
As we left the theater, my Chinese friends made these comments. “Great movie. Well done. It shows what China went through. If American audiences don’t see this movie because the lead is Chinese, they don’t want to learn about China.”
Evidently, the movie’s distributor agreed since Mao’s Last Dancer was only in one old theater near us that plays serious, artsy movies.
However, for the first showing of the day, it was a nice audience—several hundred at least.
Mao’s Last Dancer was a great but misleading title. How could Li Cunxin have been Mao’s last dancer when there are ballet troupes all over China (even today) as in Beijing where Li learned ballet?
The Huffington Post review said the movie was middlebrow and rises above the pack if only by a little. The film critic was Marshall Fine, and I disagree with him.
If Fine knew more about the Chinese and China’s history, he might understand why I disagree.
When Li was a child, China was in the middle of the Cultural Revolution, a form of national (or collective) madness that lasted about a decade and ended after Mao’s death thanks to Deng Xiaoping.
Mao’s Last Dancer does a subtle but good job showing what rural life was like during the Cultural Revolution and afterward as attitudes started to change in China.
The movie also shows how tough the Chinese are when it comes to education. Working to gain an education is serious business in China—even today. What you see while Li and the other children are learning ballet reveals the Chinese mindset.
The New York Times review was kinder but still off the mark. Mike Hale, writing for the Times, says, “Mao’s Last Dancer is a story of a young and flexible Chinese man who comes to America, where he’s seduced by disco, creative freedom and a honey-haired Houston virgin…”
Can anyone blame young Li for being seduced by a glitzy party country build on debt while the early 1980s China is a drab, colorless place just emerging from its shell? At that time, China’s metamorphosis was just beginning.
If Li had gone home to China and married the Chinese ballerina he was sweet on, today he would be living a lifestyle similar to what he saw in America then. China has changed that much.
What took America more than a century to achieve, China accomplished in the thirty years since 1980. In fact, I was disappointed that there wasn’t a scene near the end showing one of China’s modern cities that compares to the Houston Li saw when he first arrived in America.
Hall’s conclusion was wrong. Mao’s Last Dancer is not “strenuously brainless”. If Hall knew more about China, he would understand why my two Chinese friends believe the movie is worth seeing for its story and its educational value.
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