In Mao’s Last Dancer (2010, Dir. Bruce Beresford), Li Cunxin is portrayed as a non-racist character as assessed through Wu’s three-pronged theoretical ideal of a Chinese-American character. Wu’s three-pronged theoretical ideal of a Chinese-American character. Unlike the classic Hollywood films that we studied in class, Li Cunxin’s character is realistically shaped by his cultural environment in Communist China, which satisfies Wu’s first prong. This is the case for Li Cunxin, as his motives and principles are shown to be shaped by his teaching in communist China, and they change over the course of the movie upon his exposure to Western society. Therefore, this portrayal is non-racist. We examine in greater detail the portrayal of communism and capitalism in the film and its relationship to artistic expression.
In the context of Mao’s Last Dancer, the tragic relationship, as identified by Marchetti, between Liz and Li exemplifies a primary non-racist arc of character emotions and motives,as addressed in the Wu’s second prong. Li is not portrayed as a flat character, but rather as an individual capable of making his own decisions about his relationship and blatantly defying those who stand in the way of his romantic decisions.
The final prong addresses that both the Chinese and American historical and cultural aspects, respectively, portrayed in the work must be “accurate and used appropriately in regard of the character” (Marchetti 5). The American historical aspects are widely appropriate to the time period, with references to popular sports teams of the time as well as political figures, such as President Reagan. With Mao Zedong as a prominent presence in the movie, both with his physical representations in posters and television and in the reigning cultural attitude of Chinese towards communism. Mao’s Last Dancer respects language preferences in both areas respectively, with dialogues conducted in China taking place in Chinese and dialogues occurring in the US taking place in English.
Communism and Ballet: Eastern Inferiority
By: Phillip Goodling
Mao’s Last Dancer (2010, Dir. Bruce Beresford) is a film in which Eastern philosophy, represented by the Chinese, and Western philosophy, represented by Americans and Australians, mingle and sometimes clash. The film emphasizes the contrast between communist Chinese principles and capitalist Western principles on a regular basis in regards to consumerism, political freedoms, individual expression, and artistic expression. Communism, which is linked with Chinese culture more generally, is portrayed negatively in the vast majority of the film and is subordinate to more dominant and paternalistic expressions of capitalism and Western culture, especially in relation to the ballet.
Communism in the film is shown in three main ways: Flashbacks to Li’s Cold War upbringing, Li’s principals during his stay in the United States, and
depictions of the State. The characterization of Li’s upbringing is primarily poor, and consists of enforced uniformity in school and during ballet training. Duty to the state is touted as above all other duties, including duty to family. Mao Zedong’s image is ever-present throughout his childhood, including during his goodbye to his mother. Including Mao’s image a a visual portrayal implies that communism inserts itself into the private lives of Chinese citizens. Li’s selection as a student at the ballet school is framed as duty to country, not duty to family, demonstrating the state’s power. How the film portrays Li’s upbringing is especially clear in the first 50 seconds of the official film trailer.
Upon Li’s arrival to the United States, his communist and Chinese teachings are brought into contrast with Western ideas. He is warned to resist Western influence and encouraged to remain close to the Chinese state by both his parents and the Chinese consulate. Li’s relatively wealthy and consumerist host, Ben, initially upsets him by wanting to replace Li’s “out of date” suit with a more Western one. Li is also comically astonished by materialism and freedom of speech when an American criticizes the president. These instances show how Li’s worldview is initially in line with communist Chinese culture, and the comical portrayal advances the idea that Communist China is backwards and inferior to the U.S. They also demonstrate the ways that Li faces internal conflict over whether or not to accept a new worldview that is introduced with a new economic and political system.
The official Chinese state is shown to be cold, cruel, and operates like a machine with little regard for any individuals or emotion. Ballet in particular was depicted as a tightly-regulated state operation that required officials to scout, train, and censor the content of the ballet. During one visit to the school by a Chinese official, the ballet is criticized as not upholding Communist principles, and not exhibiting a distinct Chinese style. Teacher Chan, one of the few who speaks against the imposition of communist uniformity into the ballet argues that the Western style is required for top-tier ballet. He is later removed from the school for these comments, as they imply the superiority of the West.
Western capitalism in the film is shown in a position of clear dominance, beginning with ballet but extending to individualism and interpersonal relationships. When Ben and his troupe are first shown entering China, they are quite critical of the Chinese ballet, citing a “lack of emotion” despite substantial “technical skills”. This mirrors Teacher Chen’s earlier statement. The individualistic Americans, however, are shown to be much more capable than the Chinese and are put into dominant and paternalistic teaching roles. This is an expression of orientalism in that Western culture is defined by its superiority to Eastern culture.
Ben and Elizabeth in particular are Li’s teachers in both Western ballet and capitalist principles.The Houston Ballet is primarily shown through the few lead dancers that Li comes into contact with, not a large group as in the Chinese Ballet. Scenes of training are limited to more individualistic exercises, and in group training all the dancers have different clothing rather than uniformed group training as in China. I believe this was done intentionally as a way to further differentiate capitalist ballet from communist ballet, and to indicate individualism as the source of superiority in Western artistic expression. As Li is shown to embrace individualism and materialism while in America, his dancing improves, presumably as a result. By “rescuing” Li from his homeland and Chinese culture to e enable him to become a better dancer, Ben and the rest of the Houston Ballet act to some extent as ‘white knights’, an archetype Gina Marchetti details in Romance and the “Yellow Peril” (1993).
The ballet as an artistic medium is used in this film as another way to portray the inferiority of Eastern communist culture and dominance of Western capitalist culture. The backwardness or inferiority of communism is implied through the demonstration of social programming and uniformity, state imposition in personal life, paternalistic Westerners, and Western ideas as required for top-tier artistic expression. The effect is that the film continues to expand upon orientalism with the goal of continuing the Cold War in film.
Transcendent Love through Art
By: Aleeya Ensign
One of Wu’s three pronged points for a non-racist character is “The character is clearly an individual, who has personal concerns that are realistic and convincing within the context of the story, and recognizable as normal human affairs” (Wu 5). Li is not portrayed as a flat character, but rather as an individual capable of making his own decisions about his relationship and blatantly defying those who stand in the way of his romantic decisions. Another major facet of the relationships in Mao’s Last Dancer, can best be described by Marchetti’s tragic and transcendent relationships. The tragic relationship between Liz and Li exemplifies a primary non-racist arc of character emotions and motives. As Marchetti describes, this tragic relationship is followed by a transcendent relationship between Mary and Li. Further, the relationship between these two characters, “…allows for…accommodation within a slightly modified social order” (125 Marchetti), as opposed to going against social constructs. As they are both outsiders, Li is Chinese and Mary is Australian. Li and Mary are not only outsiders in America, but there are exceptional in their race, Li is the only Chinese dancer who can display emotion and Mary is a very talented prima ballerina, they can be viewed as exceptions to societal rules and therefore able to transcend. The concept of only exceptional individuals being able to transcend norms can be seen in other films, such as Sayonara.
First, the basis of Li’s non-racist character tendencies can be seen through his normal range of emotions displayed in his relationship with Liz. At the beginning of their relationship, they are both portrayed as shy and unsure of how to behave around each other, as they are from different cultural backgrounds and for Li in particular, whether or not their relationship will be accepted by the larger community. While both characters retain their markedly different cultural backgrounds, which can be
witnessed in the restaurant scene near the middle of the film, the movie presents them learning the ways of each other’s culture. This is done in a highly appropriate manner, through noting the differences in language and food, the film presents two individuals who learn about and transcend cultural differences.
As the movie progresses, the integration of cultures continues, from the telling of the Lucky Carp story to Li’s comment that he “dance[s] better here (America) because feel more free”. The relationship between Liz and Li also progresses and eventually the two get married. However, as the cost of their marriage is Li’s inability to return to China to see his family, their marriage is a trouble one. This departs from previous films that have been examined, such as The World of Suzie Wong, as the main character cannot break ties with his home country, and therefore has trouble fully accepting his new American life. Further, the nightmares Li experiences display a fully formed character with a wide array of emotions.
However, Li and Liz still fail to transcend but rather follow the projected path of a tragic couple as describe by Marchetti. That is “Death allows the first tragic couple to criticize society without changing it” (Marchetti 125). In Mao’s Last Dancer, neither Li nor Liz die, rather the divorce they go under causes a death in their marriage. The film hints in the fight scene between Liz and Li at the fact that, as Li was concerned with staying in the country at the time, their marriage may have been one of convenience rather than a result of genuine feelings. Departing from Marchetti’s argument, I don’t believe this protects American culture for being corrupted by the Chinese culture, but, returning to Wu’s non-racist character model, a normal human reaction being shaped by an extreme environment.
When the relationship between Liz and Li ends tragically, Li is able to pursue a relationship with his dance partner Mary. The two originally met in China and have a shared history of dance. Liz displays jealous of Mary throughout the latter course of the movie leading up the divorce. Mary is “Ben’s favorite” dancer, an Australian. Thus, Li and Mary have the aspect of being an outsider in common, while one could argue that Australian culture is much closer to American culture than Chinese culture is, the film draws lots of attention to the fact that Mary is still, indeed, and outsider. Further, the film also strongly attends to the fact that Li and Mary are both exceptional dancers. Thus, as they are exceptional dancers first, they are able, through their shared artistry, to transcend their inherent otherness, become just two people, and form a happy long-lasting couple. Sayonara displays a similar notion in that both Gruver and Hana Ogi are exceptional at their professions. However, unlike Mao’s Last Dancer, Sayonara fails to allow the couple to transcend culture and rather demands Hana Ogi become Americanized.
Overall, Mao’s Last Dancer features a Chinese male lead who has an ordinary arc of emotions, all of which are shaped by the various environments he has inhabited. While there are some threads of Marchetti’s concept of tragic and transcendent love, the film ultimately deal with the characters in a manner which reads as very honest and real. In the end, Li ascribes to Wu’s second prong of a non-racist character.
The Melting Pot: Transnationalism and the New “Asian”
By: Priscilla Lin
Previous films we watched in classic Hollywood style blatantly portrayed Asian characters in a racist manner—aligning with Edward Said’s explanation of Orientalism, where the West constructs and defines itself against the East as the racial “Other.” This film, however, is newer and was created in a post-Cold War era where the “ideology of difference,” as argued by Christina Klein, has transitioned from racial to political difference. In this short analysis of the film, I will explore expressions of Cold War Orientalism and evaluate its objectivity and how it opens up a new discourse for defining the “Asian” character in film.
Evidence of a departure from defining the “Other” on racial difference to defining the “Other” as economic and political identities can be found in Li Cunxin’s portrayal as a non-racist character. While the other analyses argue the case for the second prong and third prong of William Wu’s theoretical model of a non-racist Chinese character, I will explain in more detail of how Li fulfills the first prong of a non-racist character. Li possesses a “normal range of human emotions and motives, which are…realistically shaped by [his] cultural environment” (Wu 5). It is obvious that the film is opposition against the Chinese Communist government’s values and actions, but it does not allow Li to be completely nor permanently defined by them. Rather, Li is portrayed as a protagonist that is shackled by cultural environment of political, cultural, and ideological suppression by the Communist government. Despite having been ingrained solely to fulfill his duty in glorifying Mao and the state, Li is shown from his time training in Madame Mao’s ballet academy to have an individual personality with independent thoughts and opinions, and the emotions of a normal young man. He confronts Teacher Gao about calling him names, questions the purpose of him being a ballet dancer, and flirts with a girl in his class. However, he is restrained by his cultural environment’s suppression. Anyone who does not openly display the values of the government is disciplined, like Teacher Chan who is forced to leave the ballet academy. Though he has developing aspirations while he is in China, he has to keep them hidden, like secretly watching tapes of Baryshnikov dancing.
Klein argues that during the Cold War, the United States develops a new notion of Orientalism in the age of decolonization, based on its foundations of America as a melting pot of many ethnicities. Set during Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution and during the Cold War, Mao’s Last Dancer displays this Orientalism of racial tolerance with the use of the other characters. When Betty Lou implies that Li cannot play Don Quixote because “He’s Chinese,” the other characters are surprised by her intolerant remark. Ben Robertson replies, “If I’m not mistaken, I distinctly remember Marlon Brando playing a Japanese villager.”
Mao’s Last Dancer has an interesting position as a transnational film in its entirety. It is based on an autobiography of Chinese-born Li Cunxi and directed by an Australian, with the story set in Houston, Texas and in China. As an Australian-made film, it may seem more natural to dismiss the idea of American Orientalist framework within it. However, there are some parallels between the Sino-U.S. relations and Sino-Australian relations. Historically, Chinese immigrants faced extreme racial discrimination socially and politically. Legislation such as the Chinese Exclusion Act and the White Australia Policy were racially intolerant, and the opposite of a melting pot policy. However now, the Chinese are the third largest immigrant group in Australia. Perhaps this type of “American” Orientalism that Klein discusses may also extend toward Australia and its melting pot ideals.
Being a film based on a true story as told by a Chinese-born individual, there is a perceived level of credibility and legitimacy in being authoritative on the events and perspectives shown in the film. Combined with Li as a non-racist character and the transnational nature of the film, the personal journey narrative opens up an avenue for another discourse, where Li becomes an ideal model of an ambitious immigrant in Western culture. Unlike classic Hollywood films, this miscegenetic love story that the film centers around ends up allowing the Asian character to succeed both career-wise and romantically. Although it leaves some events ambiguous or unresolved, like his relationship with Elizabeth, the film concludes in a cliché manner. Li gets his “happy ending” with the beautiful principal ballerina of the Ballet, and they return to China to dance for his whole village and of course the banished Teacher Chan also reappears in the last scene to join in on the joyful reunion. It suggests in the ‘melting pots’ of the West, where there is a hardworking, aspiring migrant like Li will achieve their dreams, or the Asian American dream.
Historical Accuracy and Mao’s Progression as a Dancer
By: Rachel Johnson
The film’s dual settings of China and the United States (US) provide a juxtaposition of two widely different societies and cultures, one representing a rigid communist regime, the other representing a free capitalist democracy. Mao’s Last Dancer is introduced in the US, providing the US as the dominant setting and culture. The historical context of this dominant setting provides for an interesting discourse on historical events and race relations. With regards to Wu’s 3 criteria for a non-racist character, the final prong looks at “accurate and used appropriately in regard of the character” (Marchetti 5).
The movie provides accurate pop culture references to the time period; the Houston Oiliers, whose popularity by the 1990s had diminished incredibly until the team’s retirement in 1996, make a small appearance when Dillworth refers to Houston as the “home of the Oilers” and places an Oilers hat on Li’s head (Mao’s Last Dancer). The movie also references Barbara Bush’s position as patron for the Houston Ballet; through Ben Stevenson’s support of Li in the Houston Ballet, Barbara Bush is indirectly supporting the Westernization of Li and his transformation into a highly skilled Chinese dancer in the United States.
It is important to note that while in the US, Chinese and English respectively are used in appropriate situations. As opposed to previous movies we have seen, such as in The World of Suzie Wong in which Suzie speaks to her peers not in their native language but in English for the comfort and ease of viewing for English-speaking viewers, Mao’s Last Dancer features approximately ¼ of the dialogue in Chinese with subtitles and the other ¾ in English. This provides a sense of realism; in situations where Li would want to speak Chinese, such as when he is discussing his fate with the Chinese consulate before he is forcibly apprehended, he speaks Chinese. Scenes in the US are predominately conducted in English, but this is due to a general lack of other Chinese characters in the US with whom Li could interact. It is important to note the historical accuracy of the language as well; while in China, Chinese officials use words such as “comrade,” which were typically used during Chairman Mao’s reign.
The racism that is actively present in the movie is appropriate for the time in which the movie is set; during the 1980s, the threat of communism was still a real fear to many Americans. The Soviet Union was still in existence until the early 1990s, and China was beginning its ascent into political and economic power in which it continues to excel. In the scene in which Ben provides a false definition of chink to Li in order to protect his innocence, we are made aware of the fact that racism against Asians still does clearly exist in the 1980s. In addition, when one of the directors of the ballet suggests that an Asian Don Quixote would simply be absurd, we are yet again reminded of the persistent racism, especially in more Southern areas of the country, that occur during this time period.
At the beginning of the movie, Li is innocent of Western culture and ideals. He represents the innocence of Eastern Orientals, which is contrasted with the knowingness of Ben Stevenson. Regarding the portrayal of Asians as feminine and innocent, as we see in Sayonara with Katsumi able to quickly switch between the male and female roles, Li is still held within the stereotype as feminine through his work as a dancer. Li’s makeup and costuming show his progression as a character and the loss of these feminine attributes as he adapts to Western culture. The first large production in which we see Li he is in soft makeup with red lips and flouncy pants as well as puffy sleeves. However, begins to take on more manly roles as time progresses and as he begins his process of Westernization; his first role in the US is as
Don Quixote, and his makeup is much more severe. By the final dance scene in which Li dances for his parents, his costuming and makeup represent the ultimate manliness. Li is shirtless and every muscle of his clearly masculine body can be seen; his makeup consists of glittery fire that runs down to his chest. He has transformed, as fire has the transformative property of burning, into a mostly Westernized man. What retains the movie’s sense of morality and ideals of cultural identity is Li’s desire to return to China. Although Li does love the West and is “saved” as we have described some characters, such as Suzie Wong, being saved from an Eastern culture, he still retains his love for China and returns to China at the end of the movie. The Westernization of Li occurs but it is not complete, which is why Mao’s Last Dancer does not have the racist underto
nes of other movies in which Western culture is adopted, sometimes forcibly, by Asian characters. By retaining his language and his desire to visit his homeland, Li remains culturally sound.
Beresford, Bruce, dir. Mao’s Last Dancer. 2009. Film. 14 Feb 2013.
Marchetti, Gina. Romance and the Yellow Peril. Berkley, California: The Regents of the University of California, 1993. Print.
William F. Wu “Introduction,” The Yellow Peril: Chinese Americans in American Fiction, 1850-1940. Archon Books, 1982 pp. 1-11.