The film, Mao’s Last Dancer, by Bruce Beresford, follows the life of Li Cunxin, a Chinese ballet dancer in the 1980s, and his subsequent defection to America. Li Cunxin was born in the Shandong Province and is selected to be a dancer at the Beijing Dance Academy at age 11. Eventually he is sent to America to diversify and refine his dance abilities. It is during his stay here that he decides not to return to China and is banned from returning. After this event, he establishes himself as a permanent and successful dancer. With American-Chinese relations smoothing in the 1990s, Li is allowed to return to China and visit his home village. This film is dramatic and enjoyable to watch. After viewing this film, certain themes are especially evident. These themes are interracial relationships, the role of the “White Knight,” Li’s ideological transformation, the relationship between ballets and Li’s journey, and contemporary American thoughts on China and America through various mediums. Interracial relationships are very conspicuous in the film and are first seen as taboo by Li and the Chinese population, but as the film progresses, we see Li embrace this idea. The White Knight concept is defined as a Caucasian entering a foreign land and help cultivate that population or individual as one that embraces western culture. In this case, Li is the individual that emerges changed through the interactions with various Americans. Li’s transformation as an individual is a pertinent theme as it expresses his core identity. While he accepts the American way, he struggles to keep the foundational values instilled in him by his family and maintained through elements of material culture – this theme ultimately mirrors the plight of all Chinese immigrants and Chinese-Americans. Another motif is the use of ballets to express defining moments in Li’s life. It is through these dances that we see Li express his plight and troubles as well as his joys and successes. The last theme that was evident was the use of mise-en-scène – notably: lighting, color, and clothing – to create a political discourse on Communist China and Capitalist America. It is through these mediums that the audience creates the same image of the then-contemporary political thought. Mao’s Last Dancer is a fantastic film, not only for its plot but also for its ability to garner a rich discussion on multiple themes.
Will’s Analysis http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cd38lQWtBTI
Rotation of the White Knight
The white knight has been a recurrent theme throughout the beginnings of this class. In each reading, the white knight acts as a guardian and provider of American ideals, and shows those he interacts with the light of the “American Way”. In Mao’s Last Dancer, we see a unique case of the white knight in that multiple characters embody the white knight. However, these characters do not all act as the white knight at the same time. Instead, a single character operates as the white knight until another comes along and takes his place. The three characters that possess the title of white knight in this movie are Ben Stevenson, Mr. Foster, and Dilworth. Each of these characters show Li Cunxin the freedom of America and the benefits it possess. The key elements that all three white knights utilize are physical, social, and monetary power.
The first white knight we see also happens to be present when Li first arrives in America. Ben Stevenson welcomes Li warmly with open hands and appears excited for his arrival. Li’s first experience in America is a warm welcome from this kind and generous man, which reveals his knighthood through the idealization of America as a mixing pot of nationalities. Ben uses his social power when he takes Li to learn at his school of ballet. Ben has many connections to teachers and students which allow Li to learn more advanced ballet. We further see Ben piloting the theme of the white knight when he takes Li to the mall. Ben exposes Li to the wonderful world of consumerism and monetary freedom, showing off his power of monetary wealth. In the opening of the mall scene, we see people below Li skating as a relaxing act, strongly contrasting the heavily militarized form of ballet he has been learning during his childhood. This contrast emphasizes the freedom of expression in America. We also see Ben spending gratuitous amounts of money for Li to accustom him to the dressing habits of Americans. Li cannot fathom the generosity of Ben’s expenditure and asks, “Why you do this” to which Ben replies “I’m not trying to influence you”. I feel that to embody the white knight, the character must abstain from forcing the ideals of America onto others. Instead the white knight merely shows and suggests the ideals and allows the character to make up their mind by themselves, which Ben does exactly. Also, we see Ben protecting Li even from the bad ideals of America in the scene where Li asks, “What is a chink?”. Ben defines chink as a mere gap of space, completely avoiding the intended racial slur.
Dilworth acts as the second rotation in the white knight theme. We see Dilsoworth exercising his monetary wealth when he houses Li after the marriage as Li continues to hide from the consulate. Dilworth wields his social power when he commands been to “cool down” when he becomes hot-headed. We further see his social power when Dilworth helps Li find a lawyer. Dilworth’s protectiveness of Li further reveals Dilworth’s physical power when he physically fights for Li and withstands physical pain. Dilworth, while a minor character, plays a bigger role as a white knight to help Li during his stay in America.
Mr. Foster also acts as a white knight in the sense that he fights in every way possible for Li’s freedom and possibility to stay in America. Mr. Foster appears late in the film, but acts as a critical white knight for Li. He particularly utilizes his social and monetary power by coordinating a with a Judge to stop the consulate and even contacts the FBI and White House, without which, the consulate would have made off with Li to China. Furthermore, he offers possible pathways for Li to remain in America during their meeting prior to the kidnapping. He then accompanies him to the consulate to fight for him, not only showing his support, but also his innate will to do good. Despite the short appearance of Mr. Foster, his acts of the white knight ensure Li’s freedom from the consulate.
The significance of the white knight and its rotation reaches a critical point at the end of the movie where Li returns to his hometown in China. In this scene, we see him arrive in a car with his new wife. Then they dance together for the people of his town. The car itself represents Li’s new gained monetary power and all the connections he made in US symbolize his newly found social power. Finally, after working so long with ballet, he has achieved a peak level of physical power. Li embodies all three traits of the white knight, and has returned home to help those less fortunate as himself. The movie, therefore, can be seen as a student and mentor narrative, witch parallels the teaching he receives in dancing. All three main American male characters help guide and teach Li in the ways of the white knight so that he can take up the role himself.
East Meets West: Cold War Orientalism through Mise-en-Scène and Characterization
In Mao’s Last Dancer, Bruce Beresford depicts Cold War Orientalism through cinematographic tools such as lighting, color and attire. These mediums are used frequently throughout the film. The theme of Cold War Orientalism is presented in the film’s environment opposed to the characters’ actions. This theme creates a feeling for the viewers that America is a place filled with brightness and hope as opposed to China which is a dark and desolate land. Characterization and personality also help to support this image. In the end, Cold War Orientalism establishes the sense that the concept of American superiority is still alive and well.
The film begins with Li observing American life and style as he drives through Houston. Immediately following this scene, Li reminisces on how he came into this new and foreign world. Li’s memory takes place in his old school house in Shandong. The cinematography for this scene is dark and exceptionally cold. When Chinese officers arrive at the school, the schoolchildren recite a communist hymn for them. Following and without courtesy, the officers examine the physique of each student. Li is selected as a candidate only after his teacher’s suggestion. The actions within the entire scene can be perceived as depressing and dehumanizing to a Western audience and is only exasperated by the lighting.
Another example of the use of lighting is when Li arrives at the Chinese Consulate for the first time. There he is greeted by the official where he is told to stay true to his Communist roots and that the Americans are corrupt and evil. Like the classroom scene, this scene is filmed without artificial lighting – purporting the dark militarism of communist China. Generally speaking, all the flashback scenes of Li in China take place in poorly or naturally lit rooms creating a melancholy mood.
This mental image is further compounded when Ben’s dance trio visit the academy. The trio is surrounded by a warm glow as they pass out radiant bouquets of flowers. The warmth of capitalist America is ever-present within the scene. As the scene plays out, Li is greeted by colorful smiles as well as curiosity and eagerness from the strange Americans. Another scene exemplifying the beauty of America is Li’s journey through the American mall. Although short in length, the scene is brightly lit and filled with vibrantly colored clothing and jewelry. This scene serves as a stark contrast against the miserable Shandong Province village and dance academy. Through lighting and color, Mao’s Last Dancer strikes a dissimilarity between American and China. The contrast provides a sense of American authority and dominance as well as highlighting the differences between capitalism and communism.
Perception of communist China can also be drawn from a character’s attire. Given the conformist nature of China, all individuals wear very simple clothes that are neither eye-catching nor elegant. Even the most high-ranking officers wear the same uniform as the common soldier. This idea of conformity is best illustrated with the dance academy clothing. Even though they all vary by skill and experience, each dancer wears the same attire throughout their entire career at the academy. No one stands out based on their clothing. Much like lighting and color, clothing exemplifies the American way of freedom and liberty. When the American trio arrives in Beijing to teach the dancers American styles of dance, the dancers are suddenly able to diversify their outfits. This point illustrates how just being in the same room as Americans can trigger stir individuality within a person. When in America, this idea takes full effect as everyone is dressed differently. Different attire also expresses the uniqueness of the American way in the face of all the other nations in the world. Through attire, individuals express wealth and capitalistic ideals. Every performance sequence also pervades this idea of freedom due to their eye catching attire. With respect to Cold War Orientalism, we see through clothing, that differentiation equates to superiority. In this case, America is seen as the stronger nation.
To further express Cold War Orientalism and its idea of superior American philosophy, none of the Chinese characters take on a stereotypical or archetypal role of the villain. In fact, all end up supporting Li. While these characters cannot be faulted for following orders, these individuals are inferior to the Americans as they never questioned their ideology or broke from command. American free will and choice is a defining and championing factor for American philosophy and individualism. This mentality falls perfectly in line with Cold War Orientalism – America being superior in thought.
Mao’s Last Dancer expresses then and current contemporary political thought held by Americans on China and America. This is accomplished through the mediums – lighting, color, and clothing. Through these mediums, we witness China as a cold and devastated land while America acts as the antithesis. On a larger scope, these ideas and notions must still exist in the minds of Americans for it to be portrayed on screen. Consequently, it can be suggested that Americans still support the idea of American superiority.
Ballet and Cold War Orientalism
In Bruce Beresford’s film Mao’s Last Dancer Li Cunxin’s life is described through his ballet career. The ballet scenes also paint a story of the formation of Cold War Orientalist bonds between the U.S. and China as described by Christina Klein. Also, much like the kabuki performance sequences portrayed in Sayonara, the ballets show the emotional state of the main character while also foreshadowing future events in their life.
The first ballet scenes start the film by showing East and West as mutually independent entities. The first ballet is set in a small European style village with dancers wearing ankle-length dresses and bright red bonnet. In the other, more communist ballet, all of the dancers are dressed in the same clothes as a sign of uniformity and are dancing under one enormous tree (possibly representing the protective shielding offered by Mao Zedong) with a blood red background. Li, dressed in white comes out and kills a faceless gunman presenting him as the “savior” of Chinese communism from the enemy. The immediate juxtaposition of these two performances has two meanings. The first shows the indoctrination of Li from a peasant village separated from zealous political environment into a more communist defined one. The other purpose is to create a gap in the viewer’s mind between the U.S. and China by showing the rejection of the West (later portrayed by the U.S) by the East. Also, the fact that Li is dressed in white while all the soldiers are dressed in the same blue uniform foreshadows Li’s future assimilation into U.S. culture and defection from communist China. It is interesting to note that though this is a communist orchestrated play, the colors at the end of the scene are red, white, and blue.
The link between China and U.S. is first created when Li travels to America and performs in Die Fledermaus as Don Quixote. Most of this scene is Li dancing by himself in center stage while characters in traditional western dress watch him from the background, observing the “intruder.” The fact that a Chinese man is playing a Spaniard further focuses on Li’s alien identity in this foreign country, however by the end of his performance, he is applauded and accepted. This ballet plays heavily on the theme of flying as the scene slows during Li’s mid-air leaps showing how this new transition has given Li more freedom to fly. This ballet scene marks the completion of Li’s assimilation into a nation he long believed was his enemy. The success of this cross-cultural “exchange” can be seen in Li’s instant stardom following the performance. Finally, in Sayonara and the World of Suzie Wong the U.S. is always portrayed as this magical place but the film always ends before the Asian characters are able to reach it. In Mao’s Last Dancer the audience is able to see the realization of freedoms and dreams that the U.S. holds for those who are willing to leave their nation behind.
Later in the film, Li decides to defect from his home nation violating the cross-cultural bond he had formed and triggering confusion in his choice to defect, the fate of his family, and his relationship with Elizabeth. Christina Klein described the violation of such a bond as causing horrible trauma. This trauma is manifested in Li’s performance in a ballet following a nightmare in which his parents are murdered. The ballet scene portrays the inside of Li’s mind which is dark and chaotic with ballerinas dancing as black cloth walls shake in the background and thunder echoes throughout the theater. However, the ballet concludes with the calming of the “storm” and Li being lifted out of fog to be kissed by Mary. Mary seems to calm Li’s inner turmoil and confusion. This kiss can be interpreted as foreshadowing to a new link between East and West and views the West as superior (since Mary pulls Li up from the fog).
The very last ballet scene is used to show the creation of a new link between the U.S. and China. The scene takes place inside a crystal cave where Mary “grows” from a small ball on the stage and then “births” Li. It is clear that within this performance, Mary represents Li’s mother (especially when the scene is interlaced with shots of Li’s mother crying in the audience). After his “birth” Li dances in center stage in front of Mary, showing his mother how far he has come and how much he has grown since he left the village. Li and Mary then attempt to reach each other but are constantly waylaid by the other dancers representing Li’s separation from his mother first by the academy and then by his defection to the U.S. Finally Mary is able to embrace Li who is lying on the ground.
It is also possible that Mary represents the U.S. while Li represents China. This would mean that Li’s “birthing” would symbolize the U.S. helping and aiding China in some large fashion, possibly hinting at the U.S.’s role in WWII. The separation between Mary and Li would then be the deterioration of relations between the two nations, most likely caused by the rise of communism within China and the deterioration of relations between the two nations. Their final embrace would then represent the formation of links between the U.S. and China that had previously been broken.
Keeping an Innocent Heart: Li’s Transformation from Peasant #59 to “Big Ballerino”
Blessed be the ties that bind. As Li tells Liz in an otherwise vacant Houston dance studio in Mao’s Last Dancer, his surname of “Cunxin” means, “keep my innocent heart.” It is this innate innocence and kindness that has strengthened Li and his family since birth—and it is through his familial ties that he maintains perspective in his rapidly changing world that brings his identity into question. While the young ballet prodigy encounters new ideological challenges, he never once forgets his roots; a point I will argue is crucial to Li Cunxin’s introduction, survival, and eventual success in the world of ballet and the world entire. In China, young Li is a comfortable part of the masses. Everything is done together, whether it involve preparing the dinner, singing before the city officials, or simply trying to get to school on time. No one is made to stand out at all in this objectifying population generalization. And yet, somehow Li manages to earn the attention of his teacher. Perhaps it is because he always does what he is told without any questions, and certainly no objections. He recites the desired, politically correct answer to “What do you want to be when you grow up” and constantly aims to please. Before heading off to Beijing, his “Mum” insists, “Make a better life for yourself… We depend on you.” Fully dressed in his proper blue uniform, red ascot, and Chairman Mao pin, Li boards the bus with his mother’s words in his mind and his recently photographed picture of his family held close to heart.
The Beijing Dance Academy is confining; there are no options. It is accepted outright that Chan instructs the beauty of ballet’s form and Gao supervises the physical strength and flexibility workouts. Homesick and isolated, Li is caught crying by a ward who declares, “Crying is a sign of weakness.” However, the weakness of crying is in reality Li’s fortitude; he misses his family, but their love gives him strength. It is at this point of experiencing the loss of his childhood and the endurance to overcome the tears that the film decides to traverse time and show the Li’s progression into adolescence. By accepting his due responsibility for his wellness, Li begins to see the importance in being more independent and assertive to achieve his goals. He stands up against Gao’s name-calling and confides in Chan, “I really don’t know why I was chosen. I should be home helping my family.” His self-confidence doesn’t take hold until Chan is banished from the academy for “counter-revolutionary” suspicions. Like the photo of his family, Li revisits Chan’s videotape of the Russian ballet as both a memento and as an incitement to act upon his dreams. This reliance on material culture mirrors his growing acceptance of the West. Finally, after seven rigorous years of training, Li is formally recognized for his mental strength and courage—a “dancer” among “athletes”—principles instilled by the ties of family and friendship.
Capitalism—in the form of bouquets and Oilers hats—is thrust upon him in the Houston Airport, and Li is both amazed and overwhelmed. In his new home, Li notices the picture of Ben with Vice-President Bush and he asks Ben if they are his “mom and dad.” This ignorant, yet natural, inquisition reinforces two things: first, American politics are homier than the ever-distant Mao Zedong, and second, that Li regards parents and parental figures in high esteem. This respect drives Li’s decision making and is elucidated for the viewer when he refuses to accept Ben’s gifts, justifying: “Father works very hard… $50… one year… and you spend $500… one day.” Speaking of clothing, Mao’s Last Dancer utilizes visual clues to highlight Li’s gradual assimilation, both in material culture and in thought. We see the movement away from strict suits with red ties to loose, casual, blue attire. The last scene to feature the Mao pin is, rightly, the moment of Li’s ideological metamorphosis: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DqDIpsPsVAw Not being “scared” anymore does not discredit what his parents have taught; instead, they are elevated to an even higher level of self-sacrifice in the face of twisted truths. With this epiphany, Li has the courage to tell Consul Zhang—and China—“I know what is best for myself.” A cross-fade showing the red, setting sun (East) overcome bythe dawn of the pale blue cityscape (West) cements his personal revolution. However, in order to gain America, Li risks his homeland. He is banned from China, has nightmares of his family in danger, and these concerns affect and ultimately end his relationship with Liz. Li’s makeover comes at a price that, until his reunion with his parents at The Rite of Spring, is only reconciled through his dancing. Li admits how his tumultuous odyssey for an identity is kept afloat: “When I dance, I dance for them.” Similar to the baby in The World of Suzie Wong, family ties are what keep Li rooted, though rather than resist the West like Suzie, Li needs his family to help him embrace the West. The reunion on stage is the final release that culminates so many years of sacrifice and hard work—the tears that run down his face are not a performance or even a replication of the “right” reaction. They are genuine and they are free. Blessed be.
Li & Elizabeth: Liz is a dancer but who cannot dance regularly because of injury in the Houston ballet company. Upon moving to America, Li does not speak English well, and his words and behaviors even make him look dumb. However when he dances, he is a star. In fact, the American dancer Liz seems to only start a relationship with Li because she admires Li’s talent. When she first meets Li, she says, “I know who you are” and she smiles when watching Li dance on TV. After marrying Liz, Li tries to teach her “Chinese” values, and expects her to be a “good” Chinese wife. However, these values completely conflict with Liz. This part shows the difficulty of their intercultural marriage (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sd7njh9PJrM). Liz is an archetypal American woman, independent and unwilling to compromise herself, feeling that she would be her husband’s stooge. Instead, Liz decides everything by herself, including when they lose their virginities, that they should marry and, lastly, Liz also decides to sacrifice their relationship to pursue her career. While this is tough for Li, on the positive side Liz protects Li through managing their relationship. Her strong attitude and decision in the Chinese consulate, protecting Li from being forced to go back to China, changes Li’s life. Again, Liz forms a clear contrast with Shing Hua who by comparison seems passive and submitting. Living with Liz and having a great career in America also gives Li a sense of “freedom”. At first, Li enjoys the freedom saying quite happily that he feels more free in the States. However, this also has drawbacks as Liz leaves Li to pursue her own “freedom”. The relationship between Li and Liz shows a contrasting system of independence and shared interests that contrasts with life in China.
Li & Mary: Mary is another typical, white, American female character. She first visits Beijing as a member of the delegation of the Houston ballet company. She marries Li as his second wife after Liz. The first time she meets Li during a rehearsal in Beijing, she seems to be spunky, cheerful and a little bit aggressive. When trying out, Mary does not notice Shing Hua’s feelings of dejection after the director, Ben, directs Mary to replace Shing Hua as Li’s partner. Upon taking Shing Hua’s place, she quickly forms a relationship with Li saying, “It’s alright, I won’t bite,” and continues to speak with Li throughout the practice. She seems smooth and sophisticated, both in her communication and dance. She notices that Li is a talented ballet dancer. Later, she becomes a promising dance star in the Houston ballet company with Li. No doubt, just like Liz, Mary is attracted to Li’s talent. This becomes a common theme as Li’s talent wins himself fame, “freedom” and romance in American society. In my opinion, the film exaggerates or tries to emphasize the meritocracy, freedom and fairness of American society through Li’s relationships with white, American women. What makes this interesting is that it also shows an Western attraction to the opposite sex from “exotic” oriental nations in contemporary film. However, this case differs from most films, which often depict American men with women of other races, by showing a Chinese man’s relationship with a white, American woman. In the Kennedy Center, Li performs a solo dance dressed as an ancient Chinese man with a traditional writing brush. Certainly his dancing skills are brilliant, but also we see from Mary’s expression that she is attracted to this man from mysterious oriental nation. In many Hollywood movies, Westerners adore or even fetishize Oriental fashion and dressings. In the film “The World of Suzie Wong,” Robert Lomax rips Suzie Wong’s so-called “European street-walkers like” clothes and tells her what the real beauty (Chinese dress) is. In the film “Sayonara,” the kimono similarly plays an important role in interracial relationships. In Li’s case, his talent and his Chinese identity fascinate Mary and even make her fall in love with this exotic, Chinese man (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AZY2vjMoA70). The last scene of the movie is quite symbolic. Li and Mary are dancing under China’s flag, which re-emphasizes the attraction of the orient, and, to some degree, reflects Hollywood’s fantasy about the orient.
Li & Shing Hua: Li and Shing Hua’s relationship only takes up a few early scenes, but every scene she is in tries to tell the audience that she is Chinese and, therefore, very different from American girls. Li and Shing Hua meet through their dance school in Beijing, but their relationship is not based on each other’s talents. For them, dancing is only a medium. Nuances of in their moves relate a hidden intimacy. Shing Hua does not talk much, unlike the American, Mary, who flirts with Li during their first Pas de Deux, a two-person dance; Shing Hua is also different from another American dancer Liz, who allows Li during their first practice to touch her body in order to demonstrate one of his dance moves. When Mary replaces Shing Hua as Li’s dance partner, Shing Hua quietly sits in the audience, sad at seeing her lover with another woman. This forms a striking contrast with Liz. After being in a relationship with Li, Liz seems okay and even happy when she sees Li dancing with Lori (another female dancer in the Houston ballet company). Also contrasting Shing Hua, Liz separates her career from her love life. She clearly loves Li, but in order to further her career, she decides to leave Li. While Liz is focused on her career, Shing Hua’s relationship and career are heavily overlapping.
**Some parting words from our mustachio’d friend, Dilworth: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e5ICpoh9N6g