Mao’s Last Dancer: the dancer in red

Camilla Vergotis and Chi CaoIs Mao’s Last Dancer the next Slumdog Millionaire? Perhaps, found Paul Hayes, as Bruce Beresford and Jane Scott had to avoid Chinese censorship to tell the inspirational rags-to riches story of Li Cuxin.


Representing China in the media can be tricky. As anyone who watched last year’s Beijing Olympics, or even those who follow Rio Tinto’s iron ore price negotiations can tell you, the Chinese do not like negative publicity.

Of course, what constitutes ‘negative’ within a communist nation will often differ from the rest of the world. Our screen industry experienced this pressure two months ago, when the Chinese government demanded the withdrawal of Jeff Daniels’ doco on exiled Uighur leader Rebiya Kadeer The 10 Conditions of Love from the Melbourne International Film Festival program, and condemned Australia’s decision to grant the “terrorist” Kadeer a visa. All Chinese films were pulled out of the festival and hackers attacked the MIFF website. Analysts consider this incident one of Beijing’s ‘grievances’ against Australia, creating tension between the two countries in August.

Director Bruce Beresford also witnessed the Chinese reluctance of any kind of negative portrayal first hand when he was getting ready to shoot his latest work, Mao’s Last Dancer. The film, based on the bestselling autobiography of Chinese ballet dancer Li Cunxin, tells the story of a young peasant boy plucked from obscurity during Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution to train as a ballet dancer, who ultimately defects to the US in the early 1980s, at the expense of seeing his family again.

Mao’s Last Dancer might be set in China and the US, but it has a strong Australian connection. Li Cunxin married Australian dancer Mary McKendry in 1987, and they moved to Melbourne in 1995. Cunxin then joined the Australian Ballet and studied at the Australian Securities Institute by correspondence to become a stockbrocker. His autobiography was published through Penguin Australia in 2003, and the film adaptation was driven by Australians.

The film was shot in Sydney, Texas and China. Before shooting on location in China, Beresford and producer Jane Scott (Crocodile Dundee, Strictly Ballroom, Shine) met with some opposition.

“When we got to China we had to go to the Ministry and we went through the script with some officials,” said Beresford. “They said that we had to take out any references to Mao, we couldn’t show Madame Mao’s trial, and we had to add a section on the end about how China is now very modern.”

Beresford took what was perhaps the most pragmatic approach at his disposal after meeting with the Chinese officials.

“We just didn’t take any notice at all,” he said. “What could we do? We had to film what was in the script.”

This was exactly the same approach Scott took when attempting to secure shooting permits for China.

“They in fact rejected my application for a filming permit on two occasions,” she told Encore. “So we actually had to film without a permit, which was a bit hair-raising to say the least.”

Luckily for Scott, the sly shooting tactics were all made a little bit easier with the $25 million film’s local funding (made under the 10BA scheme with support from the FFC), which also allowed them to retain complete creative freedom that would not have been possible had the project been an official co-production.

“It was all financed in Australia, so there was no Chinese money in the film,” she said.

Despite starting production on the cusp of the introduction of the Producer Offset, and ultimately not going down that path, Scott was able to secure large portions of the film’s budget through private investment, thanks to the idea of an established audience of a bestselling book.

“The story of the film already has a great following so it lent itself to some private investors who felt it has a very good chance of having success given the large book sales,” she said.


Regardless of an established audience or any familiarity with Mao’s Last Dancer, Scott believes that the positive, rags-to-riches story itself will still hold a wide audience appeal when it premieres at the Toronto Film Festival, attracting the interest of international distributors.

“It has that good feel,” she said. “Audiences really do always look for an uplifting, entertaining film.”

Beresford agrees that there is a depth to the story that will hold a broad attraction.

“It is a rags-to-riches story, but a very extreme example because the rags were about as raggedy as you could get, and the riches were at the far extreme,” he said.

“Growing up in rural China in tremendous poverty under one of the craziest dictators in history and then going on to become a world-famous ballet dancer is an astonishing thing to have done.”

When looking at its story, there are undeniable parallels between Mao’s Last Dancer and last year’s Oscar darling, not to mention global box office monster, Slumdog Millionaire.

Neither film has any major stars, both are largely set in ‘exotic’ foreign countries, and both have long sections spoken in languages other than English.

“That connection has definitely given me some courage,” Scott said.

Mao’s screenwriter, Jan Sardi (Shine, The Notebook), feels the same sense of confidence and optimism about the film’s potential appeal when looking at the parallels with Danny Boyle’s film: “I looked at Slumdog and thought, it’s about a kid who comes up from the slums and goes on a major journey, and the story is very uplifting,” he said. “It has taken about U$300 million and this is a film with subtitles, set in India with no major stars. It might just blast a path for us in some way.”

Co-distributors Roadshow and Hopscotch will certainly be pleased if Mao’s Last Dancer, one of Australia’s most mainstream, feel-good films of recent years, achieves such a strong connection with audiences when it’s released on October 1. ■


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