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Mao's Last Dancer


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#1 EvilNinjaX

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Posted 06 March 2010 - 04:31 PM

I haven't seen much talk about this movie. I just recently watched it and found it quite good. The story covers a huge range of time and though it truncates parts and some sections feel a bit rushed, overall the pacing is really good, amazing actually. There is a bit of dancing, but it's naturally a bit frustrating to watch truncated DonQ and slow-mo'd video moments (while the music continues at tempo), but the sheer beauty of the dancers (Chi Cao and Chengwu Guo) makes up for it!

It's particularly amazing that in this movie that is quite serious, and which is at times really more of a political movie than a "dance movie," that the dancers cast to act manage so well. It helps that Li Cunxin's character is often not asked to do too much and that he's not to be too expressive (as a foreign exchange student woudl be), but there are emotive moments which are good and, more notably, Chi Cao's natural charisma does translate to the screen extremely well (with a couple of years of acting classes, he could probably be a star on screen,too!). And seems like Amanda Schull's taken some more acting classes as she's come a long way from Center Stage!







<very slight spoiler>
The story is broken into 4 segments : his foreign exchange summer training as a student at the Houston ballet, flashbacks to his selection and training at the Beijing Dance Academy, his subsequent fight to stay in the United States, and then the post-Defection life as a dancer in the US. It's all really quite interesting, engrossing, and inspirational.
</very slight spoiler>






My minor nits about the movie would be that what gets lost in telling the story are elements of the emotion and inspiration. The bonds he had with his family, with his teachers, falling in love for the first time, his relationship with Ben Stevenson, losing his first partner, etc. They are all told in a bit of shorthand. There's a moment where Li Cunxin tells his teacher, "I don't like ballet. I don't understand it." It feels like a linchpin moment and yet there's not really a followup to it. A few other moments like when Ben Stevenson says, "They all seem more like athletes than dancers... except for one." feel like they need/could use more explanation or have more preparatory scenes. Much of this we can infer, naturally, but their inclusion in the film would have elevated it significant, imho. But those are minor and are swept aside in this sort of grand tale that's being told.

It's a strong, serious movie that--on your DVD shelf--sits better alongside The Turning Point than Center Stage.

My teacher is a friend of Li Cunxin and danced Giselle with him. I'll be interested in showing this to her and seeing what her impressions of it are.

Definitely recommended!

(Also, Joan Chen can still light up the screen)

-goro-

Here's the trailer, which is slightly spoiler-ish (akin to my spoilers above):


And here's a nice article on Chengwu Guo:
http://www.theage.co...3989818290.html

#2 JMcN

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Posted 07 March 2010 - 05:23 AM

Could I ask where you saw the film?

Sadly it hasn't turned up on British shores yet. I've got the dvd on order from Australia. I think it was released on 4th October so I am waiting with bated breath for its arrival.

#3 JMcN

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Posted 18 April 2010 - 05:36 AM

Well, my dvd arrived from Australia and I finally managed to see it!

I saw Li dance with Houston Ballet at the Edinburgh Festival in the late 1980s. His wife, Mary McKendry, was my first Giselle in 1985 when she was still dancing with London Festival Ballet.

I got Li's autobiography for Christmas when it was first released in 2003 and found it an inspirational read.

Chi Cao is my favourite dancer.

I was desperate to see this film!

Was it worth it? Yes it was!!

Li's autobiography spans his life from early childhood to his retirement from Australian Ballet. It is such a broad story that I wondered how the whole would fit into one film.

The film doesn't really go into his early life, it starts with him arriving in Houston on his first ballet exchange and he starts thinking back on his life. The film concentrates on his experiences in Houston and his defection. It is a love story and a political thriller rolled into one. It's got some lovely dance sequences but they did make me want to see more.

Chi gave a very intelligent and believable portrayal of Li. The whole film is very much an ensemble piece.

I enjoyed the film very much and would recommend it. It is also good to have some of Chi's dancing on film for posterity.

#4 Arizona Native

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Posted 21 April 2010 - 03:06 PM

JmcN, I'm interested in buying one of these. What was your source?

#5 JMcN

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Posted 22 April 2010 - 01:40 PM

At the suggestion of a colleague I looked on ebay. The Australian site would not allow me to input a UK address so I tried the uk site. A number of Austrailian companies were selling the film so I chose one at random. You have to bear in mind that the film will be region 4 so you will need a multi-region player. I'm certainly glad I made the effort!

#6 Helene

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Posted 10 May 2010 - 11:02 AM

I saw the film yesterday: it was the 10:00am Sunday breakfast movie at the Park. I missed the first seven minutes or so because the bus schedules were mangled due to the "Vancouver Sun Run", but I'm not sure that was a critical loss.

Cao, Guo, and Huang were all superb as Li Cunxin, and I was thrilled to see my favorite Australian Ballet dancer Madeleine Eastoe as Lori. Camilla Vergotis had mainly one face -- smug -- as Mary McKendry. Amanda Schull was very sweet as Elizabeth Mackay. Joan Chen was stunning as Li's mother; it's hard to watch anyone else when she's onscreen. I have no idea what Ben Stevenson is like in real life, but Bruce Greenwood almost stole the movie. I much liked the actress who played Madame Mao, but like half the cast, she's missing from the list on imdb, and the official website lists only the top characters. The '70's style for men doesn't play very well, and when the men are shown from that period, they tend to look like porn stars.

The screenplay was weak. I know there's a lot of material, a lot of periods, but apart from leaving out some of the best and most powerful parts of the book, like McKendry's trip to China and Li's reactions to returning as a wealthy (relatively at least) ballet star, which would have ruined their ending, even the consulate scenes were quite dull. I found the whole movie had a TV movie cadence and emotional temperature, where commercials would have broken up its essential flatness.

It was great to see Cao and Guo dancing, though, and between the actors and the landscapes, it was eye candy to the nth degree. I have to see the Graeme Murphy "Swan Lake" someday, which looks like a hoot. Was Stevenson choreography not available?

#7 Helene

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Posted 13 May 2010 - 10:08 AM

There are two articles on Bruce Greenwood in today's "Links" and a review from The Georgia Straight in Vancouver, where the film opens tomorrow at the Fifth Avenue Theatre and an interview with Chi Cao in another.

From the National Post article:

Li, who is now a stockbroker in Australia, handpicked Chi for the role. (Chi's father, a dance instructor, taught Li at the Beijing Dance Academy.)


I wonder how much of Li's story Chi knew while he was at the Beijing Dance Academy, or whether Li's history was expunged, even by his dad.

#8 Paquita

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Posted 13 May 2010 - 06:33 PM

Just saw the preview screening tonight (it opens in Toronto tomorrow). Definitely an inspiring story with some great moments of dancing. I especially enjoyed the scenes when Li is training in Beijing. But I agree with Helene that the whole thing felt more like a TV-biopic than great cinema. Some of the lines were just so cliche, like Liz's "What about MY feelings?" or Li's "Here, I just feel so FREE!" (or something along those lines). As for the Houston Ballet scenes, I wasn't familiar with Murphy's "Swan Lake", so I found those segments rather surprising/odd. They also showed "Rite of Spring" (the Tetley version, I presume?). The filming is a bit frustrating - the jumps are shown in slow-motion and the turns are shown in fast-forward, making it hard to fully appreciate Chi's musicality and technique. Amanda Schull actually doesn't get a lot of dancing time. She really only dances in one scene, when she is practicing in the studio and meets Li for the first time. Overall, I quite enjoyed the film and would recommend it to other ballet fans, but I'm not sure if I would recommend it to those who don't have a particular interest in ballet.
Oh and I think the funniest line in the whole movie was: "my aunt used to have a cat named chairman me-ow" :excl:

#9 JMcN

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Posted 15 May 2010 - 07:51 AM

A couple of reviews and a feature article:

http://www.thestar.c...cal-pas-de-deux


http://origin-www.th...ector-li-cunxin


http://www.windsorst...4773/story.html


I've got to agree about the slomo on the leaps. Chi is one of the most musical dancers I have seen and it would have been nice if that could have come across on the big screen.

#10 EvilNinjaX

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Posted 01 June 2010 - 04:37 PM

imdb reports an Aug 6th US (limited) release date.

http://www.imdb.com/...laying/2010/08/

-goro-

#11 volcanohunter

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Posted 02 June 2010 - 11:56 AM

I have to see the Graeme Murphy "Swan Lake" someday, which looks like a hoot.

A bit :) but I came across a listing for Graeme Murphy's Swan Lake on British Amazon today.
http://www.amazon.co.../dp/B003O2AHSG/

#12 Helene

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Posted 19 August 2010 - 01:22 PM

"Mao's Last Dancer" has been opening in the US recently, and dirac has been posting reviews to Links.

One I found interesting was Rex Reed's; Reed called the movie a "masterpiece".

http://www.observer....cer-masterpiece

I think he is right when he writes,

Bruce Beresford gets it all down and gets it right. A no-frills traditionalist who knows exactly what he's doing in every scene, he does not monkey around with lap dissolves, incomprehensible time frames, computerized special effects, fast cuts and other smart-aleck camera tricks, yet he always keeps the audience fluidly involved.


and I suppose compared to many movies made today, this movie seems like a masterpiece. I think Mr. Reed sets his bar far too low.

#13 Helene

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Posted 19 August 2010 - 08:50 PM

From Links, The New York Times begs to differ:

The final image — a freeze frame of a pas de deux staged to resemble a triumphal Communist poster — perfectly captures the film’s overall effect: it’s strenuously brainless.

Reviewer Mike Hale also takes on the dance aspects, which I found interesting, particularly in light of what many ballet companies seem to feel is critical to woo new audiences:

To an amateur observer, the quality of their performances looked higher than usual for a film drama, while the pieces they had to dance looked mostly vapid, garish or both.


http://movies.nytime...vies/20mao.html

#14 Ostrich

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Posted 26 August 2010 - 11:14 AM

Regarding the slow-motion, I understand that it may bother people, watching, say, Don Q and not seeing the expected sequence of steps to the music, so as to accommodate a slow-motion leap, but otherwise I think it was a brilliant idea. For non-dancers, or people not used to watching ballet much/at all, the slow motion shows up what the dancer is ACTUALLY doing. An untrained eye just isn't able to see the complexity and technical accomplishment at full speed. A friend of mine actually confirmed it when she took her non-ballet loving family to see it and they picked out those moments as most impressive.

And shall I admit it...I think slow-motion ballet is just GORGEOUS (I do it often with my DVDs - of course only the most accomplished dancers can be slowed down and still look great)

#15 Helene

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Posted 26 August 2010 - 11:15 AM

Slow-motion was used most famously in the Vasiliev "Spartacus" film.


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