I have no idea why Mao’s Last Dancer has only received middle-of-the-road reviews. I was on the brink of tears for most of the film, until the end when the dam burst into an ugly-screwed-up-face fit of uncontrolled bawling. RM admitted even he was getting teary. So, five stars for emotional effect.
The rich, lush film brings to the screen the rags-to-riches autobiography of Chinese ballet dancer Li Cunxin (who now lives in Melbourne). It switches back and forth in time and location, between his childhood poverty in Shandong Province, his rigorous training at the Beijing Academy of Arts and his first steps onto Western soil and exposure to American ways as a guest student of the Houston Ballet.
Basically, the premise of the film is a classic adventure story. It’s about the journey of a person who starts off in one place, emotionally and physically, and ends up somewhere else. It’s a story of great contrast, between poverty and wealth, East and West, discipline and adulation.
There are various storylines about his initial awkwardness towards Western culture, his love affair with an American ballerina and his decision to defect to the US despite possible repercussions for his family. Within those storylines director Bruce Beresford has weaved dance excerpts choreographed by Graeme Murphy. I loved the dancing. The dances emphasised and expressed the emotions of the protagonists at a particular point in time and the excerpts never felt like a contrived intermission in the story. It was more like a shorthand way to telling the story, especially as the scenes always showed the reactions of the audience. The only thing I didn’t like were the slow-mo effects, as that did feel like an obvious device to heighten emotional effect.
The particular screening I attended the film was followed by a discussion about ‘which is better, the book or the movie?’. The panel consisted of the screenwriter Jan Sardi (who also wrote the screenplay for Shine) and Brian McFarlane, Honorary Associate Professor of film history at Monash University and author of Novel to Film, An Introduction to the Theory of Adaptation. Together they led the audience into a very revealing discussion about the work of a screenwriter. Jan had to take the 400+ page book and make certain choices about what scenes to leave in, what scenes to leave out and how to amalgamate events and characters. He said that a screenwriter’s first priority should be to the audience; it’s not about fidelity to the text. The script should create an emotional landscape so scenes should always to move the story along and make the audience care about the characters.
That’s why the film was not made with a linear timeline, as Jan realised that if he stuck to the structure of the book the first 30 minutes would have been set in China, with people speaking Chinese. I think the time-switching worked well, as it heightened the drama in the story and a provided a sense of compelling immediacy for the audience. Throughout the film you were asking Who is he? How did he get here? Why are they treating him like this? How did his life change?
So to answer the question ‘which is better, the book or the movie’ I think Brian McFarlane made the key point – it’s not a question about whether the film is better than the book or vice versa. They are different art forms telling stories in different ways. The better question should be ‘what is exciting in this book that made the filmmaker want to adapt it into a film?’