The ballet is the last place one would expect to find a battlefield between China and the United States, but as Ben Stevenson’s Mao’s Last Dancer points out, there really was no other place for the two nations to go toe-to-toe when it came to Li Cunxin. Starring Bruce Greenwood, Joan Chen, Chi Cao, and Amanda Schull and set in an epoch of political distrust among the world’s largest political powers, Mao’s Last Dancer is a gripping tale of one man’s courageous journey during the rise of Maoism and the Chinese Cultural Revolution to follow his dreams despite the costs.
A film worthy of Oscar and Golden Globe nominations for Best Picture, actors Bruce Greenwood and Joan Chen told Buzzine why they believe Mao’s Last Dancer holds a special place in their hearts. Then again, a film about a young man’s struggle to cope with being taken away from his home at an early age before being abandoned by the Chinese government in the midst of discovering love and mastering ballet is certainly capable of capturing anyone’s heart.
“It wasn’t just about ballet; it was about the political environment and the history of Maoism and the cultural revolution,” Greenwood told Buzzine. “Then there is this dilemma where Ben Stevenson (Li’s instructor and Greenwood’s character in the film) has spent all of his time cultivating this exchange with the Chinese and keeping that exchange of art and information open … for the greater good for both cultures.
“Suddenly, in the midst comes this kid who is championed and loved as an artist, and this kid has this impossibly strong urge to stay because he has fallen in love with this woman. But all of a sudden, all the things Stevenson had been cultivating for all this time was put at risk (because of Li’s actions).”
Playing Li was Chi Cao, the real-life ballet dancer who helped tell the real story of one Chinaman’s struggle to come to terms with his freedom to dance, love of his home country, and loss of family. Indeed, Li’s real-life story (as well as the version of it depicted on screen) aptly fits the film’s tagline: “Before you can fly, you have to be free.”
It was a story Joan Chen was able to painfully relate to, as she came to the United States from China in 1981, coincidentally the same time Li arrived in Houston.
“I came to the United States in 1981 as a student, just like Li did in 1981. When I left … it was an outrage, basically,” Chen candidly recalled. “For my first four years of studying in the U.S., I couldn’t go home. There was this big outrage in China, and I didn’t know how to face the public.”
The Chinese-American actress added that she endured tough questions and accusations from home, including “Why did she want to leave for America?” and “China is not good enough for her anymore.” She was even banned from her homeland for several years due to actions considered treacherously unpopular during the 1980s.
“It was very painful. When I first came here, I did not feel as if this were my home,” Chen told Buzzine. “This was were I was studying, but now my own home was rejecting me, so I understand Li’s feelings. I was drawn to the story because I was too familiar with what he was going through.”
A lot of that emotion and relation came through during the film’s climactic scene, where Li (Chi Cao) meets his parents (including Joan Chen, who played Li’s mother). Greenwood vividly recalled the moment of the production when the film’s director, Bruce Bereford, approached both Cao and Chen about the emotional climax.
“As Bruce (Bereford), Chi, and Joan were talking about it and they decided to do what they ultimately did, I thought, no way, that’s not going work,” Greenwood emotionally told Buzzine. “But they were only talking about it, and then they did it — and that was without having the context of watching the movie, seeing it isolated … I was just gone! Oh, forget about it!”
“When I went to the screening a couple weeks ago in Houston, the first time I had seen it, I was so busy reevaluating what I had done and concentrating on what I could have done better. I wasn’t really in the movie much because I was really try to figure out what I could do better the next time,” he gleefully stated. “But the second time, I had sort of given up on that, and I could listen really closely for the [sniffles]. It was great to hear the audience connect with it all.”
The audience will probably also connect with the vehicle in which the story is told, as Mao’s Last Dancer accurately portrays the excruciatingly cruel world of ballet.
“You’ve got to be able to cut it. These artists are incredibly hard-working and talented, but if something happens and someone gets injured, boom [slams fist against table] — the show must go on. They’ll be brought back when they are healthy, if they get healthy,” Greenwood frankly opined. “If they don’t get healthy, you can’t cry too long about it. It was interesting to see the mechanics of the industry are inexorable and they don’t stop for anybody.”
That “show must go on” philosophy applies to Mao’s Last Dancer as well, as the film is finally set for release nearly two-and-a-half years after production on the project commenced. As of its opening this weekend (the film opens on August 20th), Mao’s Last Dancer is in limited release. Should the film garner enough attention in the few markets it will open in, perhaps Mao’s Last Dancer will pick up enough momentum and steam to launch itself into a full-fledged campaign to earn legitimate attention from the Academy for a Best Picture nod.
Greenwood, who claimed he invested so much of his emotional self into the film, seemed to agree with this sentiment.
“I know it’s getting a pretty small release at the moment, but I think it’s a good choice because people have to start talking about it,” Greenwood shared among his final thoughts in his conversation with Buzzine. “It’s a beautiful, collective experience. You can feel the emotion in the theater. It’s an event. It feels important. You are not in there sobbing alone.”
While Greenwood hopes everyone who watches this film has a shoulder to lean on before the end credits roll, the one situation where Mao’s Last Dancer is worthy of sharing the spotlight with no one is on the stage of the Academy moments after it is announced as Best Picture for 2010.
Mao’s Last Dancer opens in limited release on August 20th.