Monday, August 30, 2010

Baryshnikov He's Not

Mao’s Last Dancer is heavy handed and sentimental. That said, I got teary where I was supposed to and particularly enjoyed certain performances. The depiction of Communist China was in gray shades of brown -- we’ve seen every scene in movies and television programs during the Cold War. The Communist Chinese village and school of the 1970s resembled a village in the American West in the 1870s. When a very young man from a restrictive background experiences the contrast between his gray institutional home and the Houston, Texas, of the early 1980s, small wonder that capitalism trumps communism.

My initial draw to this film was Bruce Greenwood, who did not disappoint. He is transcendent in his portrayal of Ben Stevenson, the artistic director of the Houston Ballet Company. Greenwood is splendid in his quiet passion for the art and artists, his mentorship of the stranger in a strange land. His every movement has the grace of a dancer, his face betraying love, peevishness, patience, impatience. Ben Stevenson himself is still around, now running the Texas Ballet Theatre. I can just imagine Mr. Greenwood meeting with him, watching, listening, and finally becoming the character. A truly beautiful, complete performance. It is worth the price of admission.

Cunxin Li is the sixth son (of seven) and is continually referred to as such in his home village. While Li appears ordinary, he is chosen to compete with thousands of other children for an unknown honor. The children are twisted and turned and stretched, and the limber Li is chosen to spend years at the Beijing Dance Academy, where eventually he excels. We see him as an adolescent, a teenager, and finally a young adult, striving to perfect his physical form, his strength, to become a great dancer. The institutional life appears harsh, with a few soft points and moments. The life of a dancer appears to be painful and torturous around the world.

In any story, people speaking the party line (whatever party, communist, fundamentalist Christian, Glenn Beck followers, etc.) become caricatures -- a symbol, a plot element, instead of a character. Mr. Li Cunxin’s autobiography is the source for the story of the film, and he appeared to be quite dramatic in his recollections. I found myself taking all of the depictions of Communist China with a grain of salt. Presumably that was not the intent of Li Cunxin or director Bruce Beresford.

The majority of Communist Chinese people in this film were written to perform functions in a propaganda piece rather than living as people in a story. Despite this, some sensitive performances are given by:
  • Ferdinand Hoang as Consul Zhang in the Chinese Embassy in Houston. While he explains and exemplifies the party line, he is not without humanity.
  • Su Zhang as Teacher Chan, the stereotypically nice teacher who loves classical (therefore not Revolutionary and politicized) ballet. An important aspect of Teacher Chan is that he is disappeared at one point for not being rabidly Communist.
  • Gang Jiao as Teacher Gao, the ‘mean’ teacher. Initially he’s quite negative, but his harshness has purpose and gradations. It is his recommendation of the strength and courage of Li that gives the boy the opportunity to visit America.
  • Chengwu Guo as teenaged Li, sensitive, cute, athletic.
  • Wen Bin Huang as child Li, afraid, brave, strong, weak. A child in a strange place.

Unfortunately I do not know the character names of certain others in Communist China, so cannot praise the actors as I’d like (the IMDB listing does not include photographs of the majority of the performers in this film, nor does the film’s own web site).

Li is played rather stiffly by Chi Cao (apparently he was recommended by the real Li for the role). He appears to be a fine dancer, his jetés are gorgeous, as are his pirouettes – his physique is magnificent. However, Chi Cao stands outside the young man he plays, doing what is correct without being this talented but confused young man. During Li’s time as an exchange student at the Houston Ballet, he falls for an all-American strawberry blonde named Liz (played by Amanda Schull). The two go to Kung Fu movies, Chinese restaurants, discos, and fall in love as only teenagers can. All of this behind the back of Li’s mentor and sponsor, Ben Stevenson.

Joan Chen is almost but not quite unrecognizable as Li’s mother. She’s a powerful presence on the screen, strong, steadfast, and radiant through the hardship of poverty of Mao’s China. She creates my favorite scene most believably. Once Li decided to stay in America, his family was bound to be taken to task. As expected, Li’s parents are harassed by local party members, busybodies, neighbors. These neighbors accuse Chen of bringing up her son badly, of raising a traitor. The mother of the sixth son initially stands appalled, but then lashes out shrilly at people, reminding them that the government took her son away years before. "Bring back my son," she cries. Now that felt like a real person.

Kyle MacLachlan is Dorian Gray, really. As Charles Foster, the attorney of international law assisting and advising Li when the young man decides he wants to stay in America, MacLachlan was erudite and classy. His quiet, confident delivery was attractive and avoided stereotypes one might expect from the combination of rich/powerful/Texas/lawyer.

Bruce Beresford directs the actors effectively for the most part, but he was limited by the script by Jan Sardi (based on the autobiography of Li Cunxin), which is obvious and contrived. Li Cunxin’s story appears to be the recollection of a scary childhood from a fairy tale, and perhaps that’s what his childhood was. But this story told of a young man – not a Baryshnikov, not a Nureyev, not, in fact, an adult – seems less about dance than a lack of emotional development of the child placed in an institutional setting without parental figures. Physical development was all that was taught at the Beiing academy. Small wonder that Li’s seduction to the American way of life was accomplished (without anyone actually trying) in three months flat. Despite my opposition to Communism as a political or economic system, I had to agree with Consul Zhang when he said that Li was too young to make his irrevocable decision to marry Liz to stay in America. This decision resulted in his country disowning him, forbidding him to visit his country or his family.

The film includes contrived scenes marking time and making points. A few scenes show the steps of young love, a few set up the disintegration of Li’s first marriage, but they lack depth -- they feel descriptive rather than lived. Whereas a scene in which Ben Stevenson defines the word “chink” to Li is delightful while not responsive to the context in which Li heard the word.

The Chinese government initially made Li a man without a country. The final scene showed the government softening their policy by allowing Li and his wife to visit his hometown. This was a rather fantastical sequence to me – oh, I’m sure the town did turn out as shown. What made it fiction was the appearance of disappeared Teacher Chan (he’s from Beijing, not Li’s hometown). At his stated wish to see Li dance, of course Li and his wife perform on the dirt square. Freeze frame on the Chinese man and white woman dancing with the People’s Republic of China’s red flag in the background. A symbol of Sino-US relations succeeding after all? Well no -- Li’s wife was Australian.

~ Molly Matera, signing off, recommending this film only for die-hard Bruce Greenwood fans.

No comments:

Post a Comment