Good films about ballet can be numbered on one hand. And about Chinese dissidents? I've still got enough fingers to type this review.
Based on the memoirs of Li Cunxin, Mao's Last Dancer means well, but it stumbles between genres. Li is played by three actors as he grows from plucky peasant lad in the 1970s to grim-faced trainee at a Beijing dance academy to visiting student at the Houston Ballet. (By then, 1981, he's portrayed by Chi Cao, a Chinese-born dancer with the Birmingham Royal Ballet.)
Confounded by our cowboy hats, materialism and discos, Li feels more comfortable onstage. And there — so corny that it's true — he gets his big break when a soloist is injured. Don Quixote earns him raves, and a convenient blond girlfriend provides the chance for a green-card marriage. Should he stay or should he go? And how will the Chinese government respond if Li defects?
Director Bruce Beresford employs many flashbacks in this predictable, sentimental tale, but he has no feel for the dance sequences, which lurch into slo-mo for each triumphant jeté. There are bits of humor at the margins, chiefly from Bruce Greenwood as Li's arch, gay ballet master. (Kyle MacLachlan, as an attorney, seems like a guest star on Dallas.)
The melodrama of a divided family is reliably squeezed for tears, but the movie's best scene is one that awestruck young Li watches with us: Baryshnikov dancing on grainy samizdat VHS — free, glorious, yet far from home.