One of the trickiest aspects of creating drama from a celebrated artist's life is finding an actor who can convey both the emotional life and the talent of that artist. It takes an accomplished actor to provide a convincing face to that artist and an excellent artist to convey the talent.
In this respect, Aussie director Bruce Beresford (Breaker Morant, Driving Miss Daisy) has got it right in Mao's Last Dancer, a feel-good, tear-jerker based on the autobiography of top Chinese ballet dancer Li Cunxin who triumphed against the odds and eventually defected to the USA in 1981.
The non-linear story follows Li in three stages of his life as he is plucked as a boy from his peasant village home in the People's Republic in the seventies, the hardships and rigours of elite training at the Beijing Ballet School, and his growing sense of the artistic constraints of communist rule when studying with the Houston Ballet.
The dancing is fantastic. Chi Cao, who is principal dancer at the Birmingham Royal Ballet, displays an awe-inspiring physical grace in the lead part of the elder Li Cunxin. The set-piece ballet numbers, of which there thankfully are many, are the strongest parts of the film.
Cao's performance falls a little flat in some of the emotionally demanding, non-dance scenes, such as where he talks about his motivations for defecting and implications for his family. But he does enough, and is good with the script's initial fish-out-of-water humour on arriving in Houston. Also, Jan Sardi's script allows supporting characters to add depth to the central character, in particular Bruce Greenwood as the amiable director of Houston Ballet, with memorable turns by Kyle MacLachlan as an immigration lawyer, and Joan Chen as Li Cunxin's feisty mum too.
The film was shot in China so has an authenticity to its location, although the gentle mocking of communist naivete about the malevolent West is nothing that would upset contemporary Chinese censors. A tad rose-tinted, but still enjoyable.