"You know, when I was little my aunt had a cat named Chairman Meow. I never could understand it." Despite this egregious bit of punning, spoken by a Houstonian friend of the titular ballet dancer, Li Cunxin (Chi), this biopic about Li, a Chinese ballet dancer who defected to the U.S. in 1981, is painless melodrama from its first image to the freeze-frame finale. Oscar-winning Aussie director Beresford, however, is an old pro at this sort of thing, and while Mao's Last Dancer
is no Tender Mercies
– and certainly no Driving Miss Daisy
– this is a mostly groan-free affair. Lithe and limber real-life dancer Chi is well cast as Li, who came to the Houston Ballet as part of Mao's cultural exchange program, fell in love with a fellow dancer (Schull), and decided that the cultural revolution back home wasn't all it was cracked up to be. There's much more to Li's story, of course, and Beresford handles it winningly, spending the first half of the film jangling the narrative timeline so that we alternate between scenes of 11-year-old Li (Huang) toiling away in his gray and shabby (and atmospherically ultragrainy, in a smart touch by director of photography Peter James) home province before being spirited away to study dance in Beijing. Once the action moves to Houston, Li is confronted with the "darkness" of rampant capitalism, to wit: ATMs, discotheques, and porny-looking, Eighties-era facial hair. Embraced and accepted upon delivery by Houston Ballet Artistic Director Ben Stevenson (Greenwood, wisely pirouetting over what could have been borderline ballet-master satire), Li faces the usual social stumbling blocks (he confuses the word "muffin" for cow patty, among other vaguely silly social blunders) but comes through in the end. Based as it is on Li's autobiography, the end is never in doubt, although Beresford and company wring the utmost suspense from a sequence in which associates of the Chinese consulate in Houston attempt to kidnap Li in a doomed effort to force his return home. At the time, with the Sino-Russo-American cold war still hot, the incident made international headlines. Here, it's backed by the romance between Li and his new red, white, and blue (and strawberry blond) wife. Beresford and the entire cast cover the proceedings with a light touch and just the right amount of gravitas (given the situation). While this is hardly Breaker Morant
, it's nowhere near as mawkish or cloying as it could have been.