Hollywood biopics are very good at turning the lives of fascinating people into by-the-numbers storytelling, and that’s just what happens to Chinese ballet dancer Li Cunxin in the movie about his life, Mao’s Last Dancer. Based on Li’s own autobiography, Dancer tells the story of his 1981 defection to the United States after a guest stint at a Houston ballet company. The life-changing decision was obviously a huge turning point in Li’s life, and it made international news at the time. Yet director Bruce Beresford and screenwriter Jan Sardi somehow make it seem as momentous as choosing where to go for dinner.
The rest of the movie is similarly lifeless, with rote flashbacks to Li’s childhood and training in China, scored with generic “Oriental” music and filled with clichés about communism. Once Li comes to America, he discovers the joys of disco, Pepsi and premarital sex, all of which come across as equally uninteresting. Despite the potential international political crisis sparked by Li’s decision not to return to China, almost every character in the movie comes across as noble and honorable; even the Chinese officials eventually do the right thing. Beresford and Sardi manage to present the events in the least dramatic way possible.
At least the dancing looks great—professional ballet dancer Chi Cao plays Li, and while his acting is merely passable, his dancing is spectacular, as is the work by all the dancers in the film. But whenever Beresford concerns himself with politics or, even worse, personal drama, Dancer falls limply to the ground.