AAIFF Films: Masculinity in 'Mao's Last Dancer'

July 20, 2010


These days, masculinity in the media is taking on forms other than the Old Spice guy’s booming voice and log-rolling antics -- try ballet dancers and grand jetés in place of He-Man and power-punches. Bruce Beresford's Mao's Last Dancer is the kind of film that many Asian Americans have been long waiting to see following the questionable representations found in films like The Hangover and The Last Airbender (comical angry Asian mob bosses and sinister villains, respectively).

In Dancer, protagonist Li Cunxin (played by a dashing Chi Cao in a manner reminiscent of a young James Shigeta) is a ballet dancer born of poor circumstances in rural China, brought to prominence in America through a series of fortunate events. As a young boy, he is selected by government officials to attend a special training school in Beijing, and after years of diligent practice, is whisked away to the States to represent China in all its glory.

Li learns to navigate American culture and falls in love with a fellow company dancer: fair-skinned, blonde-haired Elizabeth Mackey (played earnestly by Amanda Schull). Inevitable complications ensue. Romantic glances are exchanged. Thus goes the movie.

The film is beautiful not only in its simplicity and in its familiar rags-to-riches tale, however. It's also beautiful for its portrayal of Li as a three-dimensional, relatable figure. He's less "the other" in the film than he is a common man with a dream -- or more specifically, the American dream.

I initially screened the film in an NYU summer course with an audience filled with movie buffs from all backgrounds and ages -- though I think it was safe to say that the average age was probably 50, and the common demographic, white upper-middle class. I say this because the overwhelming reaction to the film, and to Chi's portrayal of the ballet dancer, was something I hadn't expected.

Women were swooning over the charisma of this young man, so driven by passion for his art, with so much charm as an endearing romantic lead. Maybe the response was caused by the drought of principle Asian male faces on the big screen (with Ken Watanabe's valiant turn in Inception the recent exception). Or perhaps the inherent likability of Li as a sympathetic character was what made the audience really embrace the film.

Regardless of the possible reasons, however, seeing a majority-white audience put a film with an Asian lead on such a high pedestal gave me a smidgen of hope that this could open the door for more male roles that don't fall into the narrow confines of martial arts master or undesirable, asexual beings.

Because Chi, which his tights and turns and tenacity, was, according to the audience, anything but.