Friday, August 20, 2010

Movie with Abe: Mao’s Last Dancer

Mao’s Last Dancer
Directed by Bruce Beresford
Released August 20, 2010

Biographical films are an extensive undertaking. Much research is required to accurately reflect the history, sensibility, and mannerisms of the character(s) in question, and preservation of the facts, while ultimately up to the creative urges of the writer and director, is an important consideration no matter what decisions are eventually made. When the story being told requires precise skills, the process becomes even more laborious and intensive. To make a film about a state-trained Chinese dancer whose brief time in the United States compelled him to reconsider his loyalties, the theatricality and the dancing were just as crucial to its success as the plot.

Amanda Schull and Chi Cao star in the film

In their conversations about the film, director Bruce Beresford and star Chi Cao discussed the challenges and decisions they faced working on the film. Beresford, whose previous works include the Oscar-winning 1980s films “Tender Mercies” and “Driving Miss Daisy,” stressed the importance of needing a real dancer rather than a real actor to play the part of Li Cunxin since teaching an actor to do ballet would be impossible because true ballerinas have been training for almost their whole lives. Cao had never acted before, and notes that, as a dancer, he is good at taking directions, which helps considerably when working with a director. He was thrown off, however, by the occasional improvisation by other actors that didn’t work in harmony with his strict line-by-line memorization of the script. Both Beresford and Cao add that the real Li, now 49 years old, was very helpful with filling in the blanks of the story missing from his 2003 autobiography.

Director Bruce Beresford and star Chi Cao discuss the film

Cao is hardly alone in the cast without able thespian support. Veteran actors Bruce Greenwood, Kyle MacLachlan, and Joan Chen play supporting roles and, according to Cao, provided enormous guidance and inspiration. Even though his role as Li’s immigration lawyer involved no dancing (and hasn’t compelled him to attend the ballet with any greater frequency), MacLachlan emphasizes the helpfulness of sitting down with and meeting the man he plays, Charles Foster. He describes needing to capture his energy and his manner of speaking, which includes a heavy Texas accent that requires a specific elongation of the word “because.”

Actor Kyle MacLachlan discusses the film

“Mao’s Last Dancer” is a very authentic film that seeks to paint a picture of China, Texas, and the ballet in the late 1970s. Beyond accents and magnificent dancing, the film is a portrait of one person who was forced to deal with being the center of attention wherever he went due to his extraordinary abilities. MacLachlan says that the film really captures Li, whom he describes as a “man of great discipline who elegantly accomplishes things when he puts his mind to them.” The film is certainly comprehensive, and while it does seem to go on for quite a long time, it’s ultimately a rewarding and heavily moving experience.


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