It's a shame that this movie, as far as I know, doesn't have an opening date outside of Australia, because it is wonderful. It does not try to be a "ballet movie", instead it simply and elegantly tells the incredible life story of a man who found freedom through dance.
It was very moving to attend the world premiere in the intimate Wintergarden Theatre, with many of the actors present and to hear Li and Chi Cao (who played the adult Li) answer questions afterwords. Some of the other people depicted in the movie were also in attendance, so it was interesting to watch a movie knowing that the real people were there.
This movie was very close to my heart, as I grew up in Houston , saw Li dance many times, and met him through mutual friends. Though I was too young to remember meeting him and many of the major events - his defection and his parents' visit, my parents can tell the stories and knew some of the people involved. He was my first 'dance idol', and I still respect him greatly as a dancer and as a human being.
What struck me about the movie is that it condenses the book while taking very few liberties with the story, and includes some of the most beautifully shot dance ever to be on screen. We see excerpts from ballets Li danced as a student in China, the Don Q pas de deux, a version of Rite of Spring, and bits of Graeme Murphy's Swan Lake. Nothing earth-shattering, but captured on camera with a delicacy that is far better than the very stiff, artificial feel of previous dance in movies. My only slight annoyance were the very occasional moments when the dance was slo-mo-ed. However, it served more to highlight the stunning technique, and didn't detract from the whole.
The movie was shot in Houston (exteriors only), Australia and China, with dancers from the Australian Ballet performing in the above mentioned excerpts, and several in acting/dancing roles. Hong Kong Ballet dancer Camille Vergiotis has a smaller role as Li's wife Mary McKendry.
The real find however, is Birmingham Royal Ballet principal Chi Cao, who was the adult Li (there were three actors who played Li at different ages, and the boy who was the teenage Li has just gotten a contract with Australian Ballet). Chi is a phenomenal dancer, and very natural actor - this is light years ahead of the cringe-inducing acting of the dancers in "CenterStage". In the questions afterwords - which Chi answered with great aplomb - he said that the experience of acting in the movie has really helped his ability to create characters on the stage.
However, Chi didn't have to do much research for this role -Chi's parents were house masters at the Beijing Ballet Academy, and Li has known Chi since he was a youngster.
And had been through the same school, albeit in a very different time. (Chi initially came to the UK in 1995 at age 15, and returns each summer to visit his parents - there were never any major restrictions on his ability to go back and forth. Unlike Li, who was one of 7 children, Chi is a child of the 'one child' era, and has no siblings. And expressed some hesitations about being so far from home, when he is the only one... A fascinating contrast which highlights the changes in Chinese relations with the world and China itself).
I give great credit to those involved for so aptly recreating the feeling of late 1960s China and the rather unique, loveable tackiness of 1980s Houston. They got Houston spot-on, right down to the cowboy hats, shellac-ed hairdos, semi-naive un PC-ness and disco dancing. We even got shots of the Galleria & its ice rink (where I learned to skate), the fabulous Miller Outdoor Theatre (remember seeing Cinderella there...oh those picnics) and the oil pipeline and rigs down on the water.
For those familiar with ballet, there may be some grins over the odd jumps between the Houston exteriors, and the Australian interiors/dancers. The studio shots were all done at the Australian Ballet - I've been in that studio - and the Swan Lake is decidedly all Australian. While Houston Ballet may do Graeme Murphy's choreography now, they certainly didn't back in the mid-1980s, and, in any case, that choreography didn't exist back then. Steven Heathcote and Madeline Easttoe are passable as Houston Ballet dancers - acting is fine, dancing is excellent, accent is a good attempt
The movie starts with Li on his first trip to the US, and flashes back to his childhood in China. Joan Chen is very touching as his mother - who is still alive today, though his father passed on earlier this year. We see enough of his childhood to understand some of the deprivation, though it's worth reading the book to really understand the sacrifices he and his family made. And some of the most natural and touching scenes are those in the Beijing Dance Academy - boys in the dorm room, dancers on their first day, pas de deux class, with (I'm guessing) actual students from the academy.
I was interested in the coverage the movie gave to Li's relationship with his first wife - something that is touched on, but not overly elaborated in the book. Amanda Schull plays her very well - they were a very young couple, challenged by youth, cultural differences, the traumatic experience at the embassy, and the increasing split in their career paths - he was heading places while she couldn't even get a corps contract. I think the movie handled it well, placing the relationship in the context of the rest of the events in his life - he was unable to see his parents for nearly 5 years after his defection and didn't return to China until, I believe, many years later.'
The movie also depicts the dramatic events of Li's defection when he was held in the Chinese consulate. Though it is not nearly as widely remembered as Baryishnikov's relatively more sedate leap to freedom, Li's defection was quite dramatic - he was held against his will in the Chinese consulate in Houston, and freed after the intervention of then vice-president George (the elder) Bush. The results were painful - a half decade separation from his family, and the shunning of his family by many people back in China.
I will be interested to see how this movie goes over with a more general public - rather than those like me who grew up knowing Li's story even before the book came out. From the bits and pieces I picked up, it seemed to attract the general audience and people were very moved by the story - I was far from the only one crying by the end. I really think Mao's Last Dancer has the potential to be a movie that brings regular people to ballet - it goes so far beyond ballet, doesn't trying to force the ballet at the audience, and is about real people, real places and real sacrifice.
Someone in our audience asked when Chi Cao was going to dance in Toronto - a great question. I bet the Royal Ballet is rue-ing not hiring him out of their school, and it would be great to see him get some publicity outside the UK and China. It could be a great PR grab for companies to have him guest when the movie opens in other places across the globe.
As a note, there was a brief shot of a poster for Cranko's "The Lady and the Fool" in the movie, and I actually saw Chi Cao dance in the ballet when the BRB toured to Edinburgh in 2005. I had circled his name in the program, and looking back at my notes, this is what I had to say:
"She was partnered by Tyrone Singleton, Kosuke Yamamoto and the standout, Chi Cao, who stood out for the clarity and power in his solo."
"Chi Cao was again impressive, this time as Capitano Adoncino..."
Finally, for those who are interested, the changes made for the movie...
* In the movie, Li defects at the end of his first stay in the US - he actually defected at the end of his second stay.
* I don't think the consulate official who kept Li in the Houston consulate got a happy ending... (one of the conflicts the movie handled well - the injustice of Li's being kept 'hostage' juxtaposed against the consulate official being placed in an impossible position - he was only following orders in order to keep his own job...)
* Contrary to the movie, Li did know ahead of time that his parents were coming to the US, and they did not go up on stage. However, they indeed were late, received a police escort to the theatre and a standing ovation when they arrived.
* I also don't think Li and Elizabeth's relationship was quite such a secret. For one, especially back then, there weren't that many options for nightlife, and certainly a small dance community.
* I think also, on both occasions, two male dancers came on the exchange from China to Texas - it wasn't just Li.
* Oh, and I don't remember Ben Stevenson ever being quite so svelte as Bruce Greenwood
I would COMPLETELY recommend this movie to ballet fans and non ballet fans alike. It opens in Australia on October 1st and will hopefully find distributors ASAP for Europe, US and Canada.
As a note, I have a ticket for the September 19 (Saturday) showing in Toronto that I will sell or give away if anyone would like to go. That showing (and the one on Wednesday) are sold out, but there should be tickets released the day of the showings - you can call or go in person to buy those.