Who can tell a moment when the human heart is moved. In Bruce Beresford’s Mao’s Last Dancer young ballet student Li Cunxin, enduring the agonies of classical ballet training during China’s years of Cultural Revolution, watches an ‘illegal’ videotape of Mikhail Baryshnikov, gently soaring the air in a series of solo steps and leaps so simple, graceful and beautiful that he, and we, are in emotionally wrought awe.
The dynamic trajectory of the film changes instantly. Li can no longer be just a dancer seeking his 'freedom'. He has to be a great dancer. He has to produce a similar awe as that produced by Baryshnikov all those years ago in a dorm at ballet school.
To Beresford’s credit, as we start to see more of Li as a mature dancer stunning American audiences in his adopted country, the director does something unusual. At least these days it's unusual. He lets us see it. The camera placement for the dance sequences is absolutely precise, classical one might say. Beresford’s remark that before embarking on filming he went back and watched a host of Fred Astaire pictures is something we ought to take seriously. Maybe he saw Yolanda and the Thief or The Bandwagon or Funny Face or Silk Stockings, all by acknowledged Hollywood masters with the luxury of a big studio support and budgets to match.
Whatever the inspiration, the film, almost suddenly, moves up a few notches. We become more intensely involved with the characters and their dilemmas. But mostly we want to see more of Li Cunxin’s dancing and we are grateful that Beresford decided to show as much as he did. By the end, I was rather hoping that we would see, in the fashion of some of the great Metro masterpieces, the whole of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, rather than just some edited highlights. Like Oliver Twist, we wanted more. Sadly not to be.
For a director who has routinely coarsened his subject matter, and it was quite an achievement to coarsen the already vulgar Barry McKenzie comic strip as well as those two David Williamson adaptations, frequently encouraged over-ripe acting turns and only ever seemed to half edit his films, I have to say I was astonished at how good and emotionally satisfying Mao’s Last Dancer was. The second half in particular is probably as good as anything Beresford has done before. Who would have thunk it.
So, having got this far why not go further and say how much such filming differs from others once on offer or shortly to be on offer. It serves as a sharp reminder of just how easy it is to ignore the classical principles of telling a story with music or dance on film. I fear that the descent has been largely caused by those who make video clips for MTV, a source of reference that needs to be deeply discouraged. Baz Luhrman’s photography and editing on Moulin Rouge was so deeply inefficient in showing the actual dance, as opposed to vague colour and movement scenes was the worst recent example.
The forthcoming Bran Nue Dae, which premiered recently at the Melbourne International Film Festival follows another tack and seems to have decided early on in the film-making process to seek to appropriate the look of happy and enthusiastic amateurism that made the stage original such a heart-warming and unique piece of theatre. The producer of the film was even so bold as to say, and I paraphrase from memory, that nobody involved in the movie knew how to make a musical and they just made it up as they went along. The happy enthusiasm doesn’t stand up to the rigorous scrutiny of the camera and the musical and dance sequences, the raison d’etre of the piece, are simply one mess after another. That’s a pity.