A tale of a stranger in a strange land comingles with an uplifting sports drama in Mao's Last Dancer, Australian director Bruce Beresford's steady-handed adaptation of Li Cunxin's autobiographical novel of the same name. It tells the story of a young boy who's pulled from a poor former's life to train to become a ballet dancer amid the Chinese Cultural Revolution, where, burdened by the Communist principles ingrained through his rigorous training, he eventually travels to America to perform with the Houston Ballet Company. He learns about the grand candor of American culture and economy and falls in love with someone he can barely speak with, while building a deeper appreciation for his art -- and himself. It's a triumphant story we've heard and seen many times over on-screen, but Beresford's direction elevates the true story above its rickety inspiration mechanics with an unremarkable but approachable eye for sentiment.
The depiction of the boy's life is told, at first, through converging narratives that occur in the '70s and beginning portion of the '80s, with three carefully-selected actors/performers playing each point in his life. Shots of Li (Chi Cao) peering upon skyscrapers and learning about muffins in the kitchen of his sponsor/company bigwig Ben Stevenson (Bruce Greenwood) contrast against his initial selection and physical training in the dusty outskirts of China, roughly five or six years prior, captured in Peter James' coarse photography for an earthen, vintage poise. We see Li struggle from a young age to compete with bigger and stronger boys, unable to do necessary splits without diligent practice in his teens (and guidance from an authority) -- which, as expected, slips into a somewhat customary glimpse at his training. Watching both stories come together shapes his mentality through his preparation and emerging fondness for American values, which proves a decent enough foundation for when the Chinese government forcibly pulls him back to his homeland in a moderately-scaled diplomatic tiff.
Since Mao's Last Dancer roots in Li Cunxin's true story, it's not that difficult to offer a little slack to the overt, proverbial tone of encouragement in The Notebook writer Jane Sardi's adaptation. We witness a doe-eyed foreigner -- finely played by Chi Cao as the oldest version of Li -- navigating through the freedom that's alien to him in his home country, learning about consumerism, love, and independence as he marvels at a shopping mall and watches people dance without restraint in a nightclub. His journey mixes with sweeping shots of his youngest self coasting through the Chinese countryside, with background narration telling an anecdotal story about a nature-driven compulsion to explore the world and branch off from what one knows. Scenes like these focus on evident emotional push not without exaggerated heartstring-plucking to paint Li's journey with overt dramatic strokes, which water down the rousing story's innate allure with unadventurous biopic trappings.
Bruce Beresford's direction still tightens the stale writing into a reserved but well-composed depiction studded with low-key beauty in the suitably-shot ballet choreography, opting for a cozy stream of drama to propel Li Cunxin's story between performances and bulkier dramatic bumps. The Driving Miss Daisy director implements his off-and-on aware grasp on interpersonal chemistry while structuring the crucial relationships Li develops, creating a slate of confidants and muses that alter the dancer's poise -- both in melancholy and inspirational ways -- while he falls for principal partner Elizabeth and adamantly works to defect to the United States. The dramaturgy never peaks above serviceable, though, lukewarmly emphasizing the defining moments in the dancer's life as it clanks towards the rigid diplomatic chessboard of the final act, even as Kyle Maclachlan enters the picture as Charles Foster, an international law attorney with ties to China. There's a level of polish in Beresford's orchestration of the past and present that paints an ample arc out of the dancer's oppression, though, even while dodging more poignant opportunities for depth in bringing Li's story to the screen.
Video and Audio:
The shifting film styles in Mao's Last Dancer looks rather good in Fox's 1.85:1 1080p AVC encode, showcasing the fluctuations in grain and color texture through the different points in Li's life. The coarse, dusty zoomed-in shots cradle the deep browns and blues of the Chinese interiors, while still honing in on natural elements in the wood and fabric with a nimble eye. The Houston sequences are slicker, cleaner, clearly representative of the film's modern era, while the contrast leans towards a grayish-green, while the fine intricacy in those sequences -- close-ups, the subtle movement wear against a shiny floor, trinkets and odds-'n-ends in Ben's house, and the sensory overload in the mall -- grapples a tighter focus on pure detail. It comes together into a stylish and compelling disc in high-definition.
The English / Chinese DTS HD Master Audio track predominately focuses on front-heavy design and clarity of dialogue, which stays appropriately discernible throughout. Activity does pour through to the rears -- musical cues here, the popping of firecrackers there, echoing elements in the theater during performances -- which create a satisfying surround design with plenty of punch. The thump of socked feet against the floor echo well through the front channels and to the lower-frequency region, as does the fluttering of a piano and a harp, though the twang of the notes pinch on the sound design's shelf just a hair. Overall, though, it's a gentle, crisp aural design that supports the visuals terrifically. English SDH and Spanish subs are available alongside the Mater Audio track.
Making of Mao's Last Dancer (19:21, SD MPEG-2):
This somewhat brief featurette actually features a number of insightful interviews with Beresford and his crew, where they talk about shaping Chinese locales into their focal village, reducing the space on a negative to create a grainy, old look, clearing snow, and locating a dance academy in the outskirts in Beijing. They discuss the importance of casting and locating the three ages of Li, along with the artistry behind choreographer Graham Murphy's work on the film. It's a standard mix of interviews, behind-the-scenes shots, and clips, but it's insightful enough in the content for it to be worthwhile in its brevity.
Mao's Last Dancer doesn't tread on new ground, with either its story or the way it's told, but Bruce Beresford's direction shapes the familiar mix of fish-out-of-water drama and training diligence with a sturdy-enough stream of quality to carry it gracefully from start to finish. It mostly slipstreams against the political material and allows Li's internal oppression to dictate the film, which culminates in a rickety but fine-enough conclusion once the diplomatic string-pulling ignites. But the earnestness of the true story, orchestrated with subdued beauty here through a cluster of appealing dance pieces, still makes Fox's handsome Blu-ray Recommended.
Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site