A Chinese film critic looks at how his country is portrayed in Mao's Last Dancer, an Australian movie, and Last Train Home, a recent Canadian documentary.
Western filmmakers are increasingly interested in modern China as a subject. I saw two such examples over the weekend: Mao's Last Dancer, an Australian film based on the wildly popular memoirs of ballet dancer Li Cunxin; and The Last Train Home, a documentary by Canadian director Fan Lixin. Together, the films provide contrasting views of China that are worth considering.
Mao's Last Dancer, both in script and artistic direction, is a throwback to the feel-good inspiration films of the 1980s. The film weaves together scenes from Li Cunxin's childhood, his stay in Beijing, and his first year in the United States. Li is chosen from an impoverished village in rural Shandong to study ballet in Beijing. Predictably, he makes up in "heart" and "passion" what he initially lacks in technique. When the director of the Houston Ballet arrives in Beijing for a visit, he spots Li's potential and invites him to America.
Wide-eyed and eager, Li is introduced to discotheques and shopping malls and quickly falls for a rosy-cheeked aspiring dancer named Liz. After landing the role of Don Juan in a company production, he wins the hearts of the Texas public.
If this sounds dull, that's because it is. The actors playing Li and his first wife (Ci Cao and Amanda Schull) have little chemistry together, and limp through a number of awkward scenes propelled forward by a corny, lackluster script. The rest of the cast, irritating Americans who either bully and manipulate Li, or patronize him and treat him like an indulgent child, isn't any better. An hour in, I was sorely regretting the money I'd spent on the DVD.
What is interesting in this otherwise pointless movie is Beresford's failed case for the symbiotic relationship between capitalism and artistic freedom.
Near the beginning of the film, the young Li Cunxin is mesmerized while watching a banned tape of Baryshnikov. Inspired, he sets out, as he put it, "to fly." But the film never lives up to this promise.
Once Li arrives in America, we mostly see him eating in restaurants and dancing in discos. The dance pieces in the film showcases the considerable skills of the performers, but they are more Broadway than ballet.
In Beijing, artistic freedom is non-existent as the dancers perform a ballet dramatizing the struggles of the liberation army for Madame Mao. But, for someone who knows very little about dance, it is hard to see how the Houston Ballet's overdramatized Don Juan is a superior piece.
When Li finally defects, we suspect it's the doe-eyed girl and the muffins and cocktails, not his art, that motivates his decision to sacrifice his family. All this is fine, but infinitely less heroic.
Overall, Beresford's biopic is so sincere in its endorsement of American consumerism that it often feels naive and woefully out of date. More importantly, at a time when artistic expression is still stifled by government repression, a film about a dancer who valued artistic freedom above everything else should have more to say on its importance. But of course, it doesn't.
The second film, the Last Train Home, (归途列车) a widely acclaimed documentary by Canadian director Fan Lixin traces a migrant couple's journey home for the Spring Festival over three consecutive years. It is hard not to feel sympathy for the harsh life of the workers, but the film is never a simple indictment of China's labor system. Development, it is clear, has brought positive changes to China's population. Zhang Qin shops for clothes on her time off from the factory. A worker says in an interview that he is proud to be making tennis racquets to be shipped overseas. Migrants are offered a small (albeit inadequate) share in the benefits of the international capitalism.
The heart of the film, however, is what goes on outside the work space. The film is less about material conditions of China's factory workers than the impact of rapid modernization on Chinese families. The sacrifices that workers make for their families end up damaging, sometimes beyond repair, the relationships they value the most.
Watching the two films back-to-back, I can't help but reflect upon China's changes in the past two decades. U.S. authorities have long been convinced that political freedom will come naturally with economic prosperity and a rising middle class. Crudely put, the thought is something like: if China embraces capitalism, then it will embrace democracy.
But contemporary Chinese society challenges the very core of this assumption. In Beresford's film, freedom in America is uniformly conveyed through glittering malls, restaurants, and well-tailored suits. But Chinese cities are glittering with shopping centers, five star hotels and restaurants. Nevertheless, the range of acceptable political discourse in China remains woefully limited and government power remains largely unchecked.
There is also a palpable unease surrounding China's new-found wealth and the country's future. Unprecedented growth and wealth have been possible only by stripping natural resources for raw materials and exploiting low-wage labor. The looming labor shortage and rising gas prices are reminders that both will eventually run out. The time for quick turnarounds is over, and stable, long-term investments are not flooding in.
The smug triumph of free-market capitalism presented in Dancer belongs to the past. Rising wages and greater economic freedom are important, but as Fan's documentary shows, they are nowhere near enough.
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