| This inspirational rags-to-riches drama directed by Oscar-nominated Bruce Beresford ("Tender Mercies" and "Driving Miss Daisy") would make a suitable companion piece to “Billy Elliot” (2000). Oscar-nominated Jan Sardi’s (“The Notebook” and “Shine”) screenplay is based on the bestselling autobiography by Li Cunxin, a Chinese ballet dancer.
The movie opens in 1981 with visiting student Li (world-class performer Chi Cao, currently a principal dancer in the Birmingham Royal Ballet in England) greeted at the airport in Houston by Ben Stevenson (Bruce Greenwood), the artistic director of the Houston Ballet Company. Li is part of a three-month cultural exchange program between China and the United States. Li brings along his Chinese-English dictionary and describes everything he sees as “fantastic.”
The movie flashes back to Li’s childhood in the poor Shandong Province. His humble parents (Joan Chen and Shuang Bao Wang) are peasants and they can’t read or write. He is the sixth of seven sons. In 1972, at age 11, Li gets the opportunity of a lifetime. Three government officials come to his one-room schoolhouse and select him to attend the prestigious Beijing Arts Academy.
Li builds up his strength and endurance over a period of seven years. He transforms before our eyes from an awkward, homesick boy with flat feet to a graceful dancer who appears to fly through the air.
Li experiences culture shock in America. He falls in love with Liz Mackay (former San Francisco Ballet dancer Amanda Schull), a beautiful blonde dancer. He also becomes a celebrity when he fills in for an injured regular at the last minute.
"I dance better here, because I feel more free," says Li. His request to have his stay in America extended is refused by the Chinese government. He seeks the advice of immigration lawyer Charles Foster (Kyle MacLachan).
Ben throws Li a farewell party and says "You came as a student and leave as a star." Li makes a startling announcement and the tension builds.
Beresford pulls all the right emotional strings. The audience embraces Li and hopes for the best result that will further his career. The crowd-pleasing last act yields several great payoffs.
The dancing scenes that include excerpts from “Swan Lake” and “The Rite of Spring” are spectacular and worth the price of admission. The background musical score has been recognized with an award from the Australian Film Institute. The movie’s other strengths include the costume design, production design, editing and sound. Gorgeous Chinese locations are icing on the cake.
The movie debuted at the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival.
The expertly choreographed ballet numbers feature the Australian Ballet and the Sydney Dance Company. Li wanted Cao to portray him in the movie since Cao’s parents were two of his former teachers in Beijing.
Let the trumpets blare for artistic freedom of expression that is perfectly reflected in this uplifting and moving biopic.
The dialogue is partially in Mandarin with English subtitles. Now playing exclusively for a limited engagement at the Leawood in Overland Park.
Keith Cohen "The Movie Guy"