Based on the true story of Li Cunxin, Mao’s Last Dancer rests on solid foundation. The underdog tale is one of cinema’s greatest and longstanding formulas, capable of working in nearly any genre. An underdog fighter or hockey team is hardly any different than an underdog ballet dancer, especially when both are so heavily reliant on the physical capabilities of our protagonist. And the fact that Mao’s Last Dancer is based on a true underdog story just makes its emotional punch that much more significant.
While Black Swan celebrated the duplicity and raw sexual nature of ballet dancing, the pain and sacrifices, Mao’s Last Dancer offers a far more pleasant journey. Perhaps some of the hard work is too easily presented in a montage sequence, rather than showing the pain of dedication, but this is a film much more about Li’s story than a realistic portrayal of dancing.
Li was born a peasant boy in rural
, one of many young children in his family. When he is chosen to try out to become a dancer under the communist regime of his country, Li’s flexibility gets him chosen. Then trained to become a dancer under the struggling changes of his country, Li’s world is changed even further when he is chosen to be an ambassador for his country in the China . United States
Li’s journey is filled with all sorts of ups and downs, though most seem to be off-stage. Every time he dances in public, his career seems always on an upswing. The film glosses over Li’s relationships, perhaps a little too much. There is some convenience in the way each of the women in his life become central to what he is. But again, this is much more about the emotional impact of the final sequence, which is built up to quite nicely, amidst everything else in the film.