Veteran Australian Director Bruce Beresford takes us back to Mao’s China, where, at least in the remote rural areas, people still lived as they had for hundreds of years. In a tiny village, a large family lives together in a run-down shack, scratching out a mere existence from a little plot of worn soil, but they are not at all unhappy. It’s the only life they know. The fifth son, Li Cunxin, seems like an ordinary boy in school: bright, yes, but a bit tempestuous, which is a luxury not easily tolerated in a country still run by rigid disciples of The Social Revolution.
One day, there is an extraordinary visit from the far-away government in Beijing:
cultural representatives seeking (at the behest of Mao’s wife), particularly promising youngsters to enroll in a school for dance. Li, apparently blessed with a lithe, flexible, pre-pubescent body, is chosen, and at the ripe age of 11, is sent off, really never to return. He tells his Mother that he’s frightened, and doesn’t really want to go, but she convinces him that it is a great opportunity, and he should take advantage of it, and make his family proud.
Li (played by Wen Bin Huang as a child and Chengwu Guo as a teenager), devastated and lonely at first, slowly learns classical dance, and demonstrates a talent for the ballet. He is chosen, as an adult (played by Chi Cao, who really is a professional ballet dancer), to be the lead dancer in Beijing academy’s company, which then develops an exchange program with the United States. So Li suddenly finds himself in Houston, Texas, in the 1980s, a culture shock for anyone of any nationality.
This is where the movie takes a left turn, and then begins to get uneven. Canadian Bruce Greenwood as the Houston dance company’s director is almost believable enough, but Kyle MacLachlan, who’s from Yakima, Washington, hams up the fake Texas accent enough to make him painful to watch (or maybe it’s his 92 episodes of “Desperate Housewives”). Amanda Schull, who is also trained as a ballerina, is really awkward as Li’s first American girlfriend, the one with whom he wants to elope, and then, defect.
All this creates quite a stir in the Chinese Embassy in Houston, which stonewalls, obfuscates, and even briefly imprisons our budding ballet star, but the Houston Ballet Company had a few contacts of their own (notably a regular patron named Barbara Bush), and soon Li is free to be an American (we’re still not sure where he learned English, but perhaps that’s another story).
Li becomes so American that he winds up fighting with his girlfriend over things like how neat the apartment is kept, and whose career is on hiatus while the other’s is being served. He becomes so American that he divorces his (underachieving) first wife in order to marry his co-star on the stage of the ballet company.
Despite the threats of the Chinese consulates, Li does, eventually, get to see his parents again, and is, eventually, able to return to his little village as the conquering hero. (After becoming the principal of the Melbourne Ballet Company, he now resides in Australia with his thoroughly Anglicized family.)
It’s a sweet tale, and at times the dancing of Chi Cao soars, but the film is so awkward in other places, and so dependent on an audience who wants to watch people practicing ballet, that it will have a limited following among moviegoers in the U.S.
RONALD P. SALFEN is pastor, Grace Church, Greenville, Texas