Li Cunxin is played magnificently by Chi Cao (as an adult) as well as Chengwu Guo (as a teenager). Chi Cao, a highly recognised ballerino in his own right, must receive the bulk of the accolades for what is truly a seamless breakthrough performance by a first time actor. The rest of the cast are also fantastic including Bruce Greenwood who plays the difficult and complex part of a slightly camp Ballet Director who must confront his own values.
Kyle MacLachlan ("Sex and the City") takes a relatively brief but delightfully forceful turn as a Houston lawyer and Australians will delight in the cameo by the ever wonderful Jack Thompson.
As an Australian production I was extraordinarily proud. Bruce Beresford has produced arguably his finest picture to date (and yes, I've seen "Driving Miss Daisy") as the pacing, musical score, use of ballet on camera and story structure were all pitch perfect. The film jumps around between 80s USA and Li's Chinese upbringing at the beginning before settling into a groove during the middle and end. And just when the film could be in danger of straining it's audience Beresford delivers moments of levity and humour that remind us of the characters' humanity.
The backdrop of politics against which the film plays is neither ignored nor focused on. Had it gone one way or the other, the film wouldn't have worked nearly so well but Beresford dealt with this delicate theme with such craftsmanship that it never becomes an issue for the audience.
Jan Sardi (who also wrote Shine and the Notebook) has also produced a highly commendable script for what must have been a daunting project - given the success of the book the movie is based on.
At 132 minutes, the film is long and this can be felt slightly in the middle. However, the fault is only minor and I defy any viewer to watch this without being moved by Li's story.
Many who have read Li's memoirs (as I have) will be anxious to know whether the movie does the book justice. I'm overjoyed to say that it does. I openly wept several times in the film as did most of the audience members around me. There were a few subplots and parts of the novel left out but I found that, unusually, this didn't bother me as much as it normally does with movies based on true stories.
This is because the film told the essence of Li's story extraordinarily well in this irresistibly moving telling of one man's struggle as he's caught between two cultures at a time of when they were pushing against each other.
This year's Slumdog Millionaire upstart is Mao's Last Dancer.