Good films about ballet can be numbered on one hand. And about Chinese dissidents? I've still got fingers enough to type this review. Based on the memoirs of Li Cunxin, Mao's Last Dancer means well, but it stumbles between genres. Li is played by three actors as he grows from plucky peasant lad in the '70s to grim-faced trainee at a Beijing dance academy to visiting student at the Houston Ballet. (By then, 1981, he's portrayed by Chi Cao, a Chinese-born dancer with the Birmingham Royal Ballet, who can act a little.) Confounded by our cowboy hats, crass materialism, and discothèques, Li feels more comfortable onstage. And there—so corny it's true!—he gets his big break when a soloist is injured. Don Quixote earns him raves, and a convenient blonde girlfriend provides a chance for a green-card marriage. Should he stay or should he go? And how will the Chinese government respond if Li defects? Director Bruce Beresford (Driving Miss Daisy) employs many flashbacks in this predictable, sentimental tale, but has no feel for the dance sequences—Rite of Spring, Swan Lake, etc.—that lurch into slo-mo for each triumphant jeté. There are bits of humor at the margins, chiefly from Bruce Greenwood as Li's arch, gay ballet master. (Kyle MacLachlan's attorney seems like a guest star on Dallas.) Otherwise, the melodrama of a divided family can be reliably squeezed for tears. But the movie's best scene is one that awestruck young Li watches with us: Baryshnikov dancing on grainy samizdat VHS—free, glorious, yet far from home.
Cao (with Camilla Vergotis) dances on home turf.
Opens at Seven Gables, Lincoln Square, and Pacific Place, Fri., Aug. 20. Rated PG. 117 minutes.