Mao’s Last Dancer
Directed by Bruce Beresford
by Malcolm Maclachlan
Watching this film, I was reminded of the night when, as a 24-year-old journalism school student, I somehow lucked into an interview with Jackie Chan, the Hong Kong star who was just making a big splash in America at the time. Chan described a childhood where he shuttled off to a Chinese opera academy. Through relentless training he acquired the skills that allowed him to become the biggest kung fu star the world has ever seen. But when I asked him if the pain he went through as a child was worth it and if he would do it all over again, he said no. He’d rather have had a normal childhood and parents who aren’t strangers to him.
Ballet dancer Li Cunxin is a few years younger than Chan, but has a remarkably similar biography. At the age of 11, party officials working for Madame Mao plucked him from his small village as part of a nationwide effort to find dance prodigies. As the film shows, these auditions were not only looking for athletic ability and grace but also pain resistance, as we see the young Li ace a series of brutal stretching tests. He then goes on through years of even more brutal 16-hour-day training at the Beijing Dance Academy, with teachers who insult students and push them to the brink of injury (though, to be fair, this also describes many American dance studios, though they’re mostly less extreme).
The result, as an American dance director who visits observes, are dancers who have brilliant technical skills but no flare or individuality. Only Li, a nonconformist who is deemed “ideologically unready” by his teachers, catches his eye. The film, which skips around in time, really gets going when we see the culture clash as Li is finally allowed to join the Houston Ballet for three months in 1981, and is wowed by what he sees.
The main part of this true-life biopic deals with his conflict over whether to stay in America, and his fears for what this will mean to his family. He slowly realizes that everything he was taught by the Chinese government is a lie. But the film isn’t just painted in moral black and white. One would-be hero of the film, Li’s friend and artistic director Ben Stevenson (Bruce Greenwood), is great with Li—but he can also be a fickle tyrant with less-favored dancers. The Chinese official who at one point will stop at nothing to bring Li back to China proves later to have a good side.
But the real star here is the dancing. Those who think ballet has to be slow and boring never saw Li’s famed leaps. He was known for his ability to catch big air. He’s played by Chi Cao, a professional dancer who has never acted before, but does a credible job. Cao captures Li’s athleticism in several breathtaking sequences that include slow-motion shots showing the detail of the all the things he’s able to do in mid-air on a single jump. Overall, it was a compelling story, well told.
Sperm donation at the movies
By Tony Sheppard
First of all, this isn’t an explanation of the sticky floors. But, at a time when there is a growing movement in favor of non-anonymous sperm donation in the U.S., we’ve had two recent movies with sperm donor storylines, neither of which is likely to appeal to that movement.
In “The Kids Are All Right,” Annette Bening and Julianne Moore play lesbian parents of two teen-aged children. They have each had a child using the same sperm donor. The son, Laser (Josh Hutcherson: “Journey to the Center of the Earth,” “Bridge to Terabithia”) wants to know who their father is but has to rely on his sister (Mia Wasikowska: “Alice in Wonderland,” “That Evening Sun”) as she has already turned 18. Joni tracks him down from files in their moms’ bedroom and they meet him, but the initial grace period turns sour as the family relationships become overtly complicated and messed up.
In “Switch,” Jennifer Aniston plays a woman whose biological clock is ticking as loudly as Marisa Tomei’s was in “My Cousin Vinnie.” Her best friend, played by Jason Bateman, has been lusting after her for years. She decides to have a ‘conception party’ with an invited and openly-known sperm donor. However, in the “switch” of the title, a substitute swim team makes an appearance at the meet. Years later, there is much forced awkwardness and relationship strain associated with the presumed identity of the donor. Even when the truth becomes known, things get worse before they get better.
Those in favor of banning anonymous donation need an uncomplicated happy movie to make their case because the latest pair of offerings isn’t really helping their cause. Or the cause of cleaner floors.