It’s really a tale of two dancers. One, Li Cunxin, a peasant boy plucked out of his rural Chinese village and sent to the Beijing Arts Academy toward the end of the Mao Zedong regime, became one of the most prominent ballet dancers in the world. The other, Chi Cao, is the phenomenal young Chinese ballet star who plays Li in Bruce Beresford’s heartfelt, rewarding film. Scripted by Jan Sardi (Shine) from Li’s autobiography, the film sticks to the highlights of Li’s incredible journey, but dramatic resonance and Beresford’s beautifully shot dance sequences keep the viewer enchanted. The sixth of seven sons, Li grows up in a poor family presided over by loving parents (Joan Chen is wonderful as his humble, but feisty mother); newspaper lines the walls and they share a communal soup bowl at mealtimes.
By mere happenstance, 11-year-old Li is sent off for years of grueling training in Beijing, where Communist Party officials demand more “politics and guns” in the students’ repertoire. Homesick at first, Li blossoms under a caring teacher (who smuggles him an illicit video of “the defector” Baryshnikov), and his own determination. In 1981, in an early, tentative cultural exchange program between China and the West, Li is invited by Artistic Director Ben Stevenson (Bruce Greenwood) to study with the Houston Ballet. As he copes with language, first love, conspicuous western consumption, and the citizens’ freedom to make unflattering remarks about their leaders in public, Li’s career trajectory is astronomical; in the best musical-comedy tradition, he goes on for an injured principle dancer one night and comes offstage a star. His prominence finally leads to a famous standoff at the Chinese Embassy when his government tries to reel him back in. (Kyle McLachlan digs into a juicy role as immigration lawyer Charles Foster, who spearheads an international media response in a matter of hours.) The young actors who play the boy and teenage Li (Wen Bin Huang and Chengwu Guo) are completely engaging. Cao (himself a Beijing Dance Academy grad who now dances with the Royal Ballet, Birmingham) is an effective actor, but his astonishing dancing literally makes the film soar. I’m not a fan of too much camera trickery, but whenever Beresford slows down a few frames in mid-jeté or spin so we can better view Cao’s artistry and count the rotations, it’s breathtaking. (PG) 117 minutes. In subtitled Mandarin and English. (★★★) LJ
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