MAO'S LAST DANCER is based on the memoir by Li Cunxin, and begins where Li's life began, in rural China. It's the late 1960s, and the Beijing Dance Academy is looking for fresh blood. They find and bring Li to the city. He is a boy, but already the dance masters can see some potential. This potential explodes into a brilliant dancer and a beautiful young man.
Soon after becoming a man, Li attracts the attention of the West. The young Chinese dancer finds himself in Houston in the 1970s. He is dazzled by American consumerism and political freedoms; he soon starts to disco dance and fuck loose white women. With good reason, he does not want to return to China, and this causes an international incident.
The best things about the movie are the dance sequences. Unlike many films about great artists, Mao's Last Dancer shows the artist in action, doing the thing—dancing—that makes him great. (Chi Cao, who plays the adult Li, is a professional dancer who, like his character, was trained at the Beijing Dance Academy.) The worst part of this film is, of course, the reason it probably got financing: the old story of the greatness of the individual. It always goes like this: If you want to be the best individual you can be, the place to go is America. China is for insects, for people who follow rules and not their passions. Rice in an iron bowl is the most you'll get out of communist China; America is the eternal kingdom of the individual. Mao's Last Dancer not only reinforces this tired myth but ends with the dancer bringing the wonders of American freedom to the rural areas of China. This part of the movie must be ignored if one wants to enjoy the best part of it, the dancing.