Mao’s Last Dancer (Blu-ray)
Directed by Bruce Beresford
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1 1080p AVC codec Running Time: 117 minutes
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 English
Subtitles: SDH, Spanish
MSRP: $ 29.99
Release Date: May 3, 2011
Review Date: May 12, 2011
A lovely, heartrending biography of expatriate Chinese dancer Li Cunxin, Bruce Beresford’s Mao’s Last Dancer impresses as both a human story and a dance film. Beautifully designed, superbly cast, and expertly shot, the film brings to wider attention the moving story of a child taken from home at age eleven and trained for dance only to run into pressures from both East and West as his talent burgeons and the lures of freedom of artistic expression and celebration of one’s individuality bring about major life changes. While the story becomes necessarily fragmented in the second half, the first half of the film is as fine a screen biography as has ever been presented, and the fact that it’s about a celebrity whose notoriety happened in the 1980s allows the passage of time to work its magic on us to allow us to see the story unfold with fresh eyes.
In 1972, members of a Chinese arts delegation choose Li Cunxin (Wen Bin Huang as a child, Chengwu Guo as a teen, Chi Cao as an adult) from his poverty-stricken village for dance training in Beijing. His natural extension and flexibility give him an edge in training even though his physical weakness means he must put forth extra effort to tone and strengthen his muscles. Guided by the loving and patient hand of Teacher Chan (Su Zhang), Li perseveres and becomes a standout at the Beijing Arts Academy. In 1981, he’s chosen to represent China for a three month guest internship at the Houston Ballet Theatre. Away from the strict and implacable revolutionary-themed dance pieces back home, Li soars in various traditional ballets. He also finds first love with injured ballerina Elizabeth Mackey (Amanda Schull). But at the end of three months, the Chinese government refuses to grant an extension of his visa, and faced with going back home to the rigid expectations of the state ballet company, Li has some serious decisions to make.
The film’s first hour cuts back and forth in time between Li’s exciting first weeks in Houston adjusting to the bounties of America and his tumultuous entry into ballet as a child as he’s constantly berated for his weaknesses while feeling lonely and untalented. Beresford captures the child’s insecurities and determination in a thrilling progression of scenes where Li gains in confidence and ability before our eyes. During the successive sequences, we see wonderfully choreographed (by Graeme Murphy) sequences from Swan Lake, Don Quixote, and the climactic The Rite of Spring which lifts one from his seat not only for the glorious dancing but for the human drama that is also climaxing at the same time. Li’s breakthrough, as a last minute replacement for the ballet sequences in the opera Die Fledermaus, is also beautifully represented. If one has any complaint with the handling of the ballet, it’s with Beresford’s tendency to use occasional slow motion in the midst of routines whose brilliance lies in their breathtaking physicality to the accompanying music. Using slow motion may allow us to study a human form in peak condition and in marvelous suspended flight, but it does a disservice to the dance and shouldn’t have been done. The story of Li’s love life is less well handled by screenwriter Jan Sardi with a choppy continuity that reduces first love Liz Mackey to a few scattered scenes and second wife Mary McKendry (Camilla Vergotis) to a walk-on and then his dance partner. Obviously, running time necessitated the abbreviation of these stories, but a closer study of Li’s personal journey from his sexual naiveté to confidence as a man and husband would have been interesting.
Casting directors have done a sensational job finding three young men to represent Li at different stages of his development, and both Chengwu Guo as the teen Li and Chi Cao as the older incarnation do remarkably well on the stage in various dances. Bruce Greenwood gets top billing as Ben Stevenson, artistic director of the Houston Ballet who’s instrumental in getting Li brought to America and interested within limits in helping him remain. Greenwood gives a warm and affecting portrayal of someone who lives and breathes the arts. Kyle MacLachlan as the Houston attorney who serves as the conduit to Li’s defection puts on a Southern fried drawl that’s not very convincing, but Joan Chen as Li’s mother Niang is utterly convincing, scoring well in one especially feisty moment where she stands up to government officials who blame her for her son’s defection. As the two most prominent instructors at Li’s ballet school in Beijing, both the gentle Su Zhang and the dictatorial Gang Jiao make strong impressions. Jack Thompson peeps in for a quick cameo as a judge who issues an order preventing the Chinese from taking Li out of the country against his wishes.
The film has been framed at its theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1 and is presented in 1080p using the AVC codec. The scenes in America all feature sharp, clear, and clean images with great detail, excellent contrast, beautifully saturated color, and accurate flesh tones. The scenes set in China were filmed in half frame and then blown up causing the images to appear grainier and with some slight desaturation of color. These can show good detail, too, but obviously less than with the American side of the film. Blacks throughout register well but are not of the deepest echelons of inkiness. Subtitles when they occur are in white and are very easy to read. The film has been divided into 28 chapters.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 sound mix gives a rich and robust sound to all of the ballet music used in the film. The Rite of Spring is especially impressive with its full instrumentation and delicious use of bass. The music, however, gives the film its most intensive use of the surround channels. More could have been done with them during other portions of the film where more ambient sounds could have widened the expanse of the aural experience.
“The Making of Mao’s Last Dancer” is a 19 ½-minute featurette collecting brief interviews with producer Jane Scott, director Bruce Beresford, screenwriter Jan Sardi, cinematographer Peter James, production designer Herbert Pinter, and several of the actors (Kyle MacLachlan, Joan Chen, Amanda Schull among them). It’s presented in 480i.
The disc offers 1080p promo trailers for Wild Target, A Shine of Rainbows¸ and Like Dandelion Dust.
4/5 (not an average)
An especially rewarding and uplifting screen biography of a real life celebrity not immediately remembered here, Mao’s Last Dancer is very fine film. Though the Blu-ray doesn’t give the movie its due in terms of bonus features, its very pleasing picture and sound presentation make it an enjoyable viewing experience. Highly recommended!