Warning, there is ballet dancing in this film, not too much and presented in a way that even “non believers” need not hide behind the sofa. In fact, even for those non ballet types, it is spectacular to watch and sensitively played.
This is one of those stories, that if pitched to a studio as fiction, would probably be thrown out as way too preposterous for audiences to buy into.
8 Year old Li Cunxin (Huang) is dutifully attending the local impoverished school as “Son number seven” in a tiny Chinese village at the height of Mao’s Cultural Revolution.
Madame Mao has dispatched teams searching for talent and alights eventually on Li Cunxin, initially an unlikely choice for ballet super-stardom.
Played as a teenager by Guo and finally as an adult by Chi Cao, the story is a reasonably linear retelling of the biography of Li Cunxin, which has achieved best seller status.
Enduring constant hardship and deprivation Cunxin gradually becomes a ballet dancer of note.
Missing his parents who he no longer has access to, he is trained along with his classmates in a authoritarian style.
One demonstration ballet does not meet with approval by Madame Mao as there is not enough Class struggle, military leanings and killing, cue rifles, uniforms and a harsher tone in Ballet 2, the sequel.
Li eventually has the opportunity to travel to Houston to perform with the ballet as an exchange student. Li is looked after in a mentor/father type relationship by the Ballet director Ben Stevenson, Bruce Greenwood in a very effective and different role.
Fair to say that Li’s head is turned by the obvious distractions that surround him, despite his “mental toughness” protecting him from the capitalist threat. Where this leads him is the subject of the rest of the film, which cannot be divulged, if we are to remain spoiler free.
The story is a cracking tale and is well told by the dependable director Bruce Beresford, in a non flashy, here are the facts kind of way. Interestingly, the hardships and deprivations are seemingly played down, as any distributor would be mindful of the worldwide audience for a film in 2010. Politics and human rights are not given the prominence you might expect and whilst the elements are there, you do get a sense that some of the scenes and situations are airbrushed, so as not to offend anyone too much.
Interestingly when Li first gets to America, with skyscrapers and the obvious “superiority” of the capitalist system much in evidence, it is 1979. Perhaps in 2010, many of the skyscrapers are now owned by Chinese companies, the irony possibly being deftly slipped in by the Australian director.
Chi Cao is a accomplished dancer and this is obvious, his acting skills are adequate but in the circumstances fit well with the story.
The romantic story with Elizabeth Mackay (Schull) is well sketched and the film feels like a hefty slice of entertainment, you certainly get your monies worth and cover a lot of ground.
A faithful adaption of a bestselling autobiography.
Lacking in fireworks but solid entertainment with some affecting closing concert scenes that may have you hunting for the tissue box.