The story is based on the autobiography of Li Cunxin, who was a principal dancer with the Houston Ballet and, later, the Australian Ballet. When he was a very young child, Li was taken from his large family in a tiny rural village to live in Beijing and train as a dancer under Madame Mao's cultural initiative. He didn't show much promise initially: he was skinny and weak, and terribly homesick. The only thing he had going for him at first was his flexibility. One of his teachers saw his potential and encouraged him to work hard and dream big. Upon watching a clandestine tape of Baryshnikov at the height of his prowess in human flight, Li had an epiphany, which ignited his passion to become a great dancer. A few years later, he was a principal dancer in Beijing where he was spotted by a visiting group of American artists. The Houston Ballet invited him to study with them as a cultural exchange student. The Chinese government agreed to let him go to America for three months. Before the three months were up, he stood in for the troupe's principal dancer who had been injured during practice, and a star was born.
At the end of his three months, he decided to defect because he said he danced better in America, where he felt free. After a few tense days, the Chinese agreed to let him stay in America, on the condition that he would never be allowed to visit China again. He went on to a stellar career with the Houston Ballet, while at the same time suffering remorse over his decision to abandon his family and leave them at the mercy of the Chinese regime.
The film is beautifully told, visually and musically. The dancing is incredible, and the acting better than I expected for this type of movie. Interestingly, there are no really evil characters, except perhaps Madame Mao (and she's only really evil because I know a little outside-the-movie history about her). The Chinese government, is, of course, the villain. Virtually all the other characters are basically good people, who support Li to a greater or lesser degree. Even the mean Chinese dance teacher gave his support at a critical moment. I enjoyed watching the friendship develop between the naive Chinese dancer and the Texans. The artistic director is generally a good guy, except for his willingness to send Li back to China at the end of the specified three months.
This story is about the emotional and physical labors of the main character to grow into a better dancer than his raw talent would have allowed, and the personal cost to him of following his dream to the end of the rainbow, where he achieved spectacular professional success, tempered by personal grief and guilt.
It seems to me that the dictatorship of Art is every bit as enslaving as a the dictatorship of the proletariat.
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