Monday, September 28, 2009
The ballet pic and the biopic come together in a new Australian film that celebrates a tall poppy that this country can now claim as its own.
Mao’s Last Dancer combines several classic myths – rags to riches, the blossoming of an amazing talent against great odds, and the quest for love. But the results are ultimately disappointing.
The film is based on the extraordinary autobiography of acclaimed ballet dancer Li Cunxin, who escaped bitter impoverishment in rural China when he was selected to train with Madame Mao’s Beijing Dance Academy during the Cultural Revolution.
Li’s second escape came when, dancing with the Houston Ballet on a cultural exchange, he was offered a contract and made a dramatic defection to the West, causing a diplomatic crisis and media frenzy. Li now lives in Melbourne with his Australian-born wife and family. The book, first released in 2003, has become a worldwide bestseller with more than 400 000 copies sold.
The film brings to life the decades after the fateful day when communist officials arrived at Li's village school in the north-east province of Shandong and made the last-minute choice that would whisk the 11-year-old away from his large, close family to train in Beijing.
It’s almost saved by the strength of the story itself. Li’s tale has a strong emotional trajectory and is spiked with conflict, pathos and triumph. His astonishing career, the drama of his defection and his continuing loyalty to his beloved parents (beautifully played by Joan Chen and Wang Shuang Bao) keep the plot barrelling along. They also allow the audience to engage emotionally with the story.
The intersections of Chinese history with Li's personal story are as disturbing as they are novel. There's an anachronistic element to the early scenes: we see Li's peasant parents toiling in the fields; Li and his six brothers in their tiny, smoky stone hut; and the chilly village schoolroom with its framed picture of Mao in pride of place. These scenes have an air of authenticity, with cinematographer Peter James creating a grainy, washed-out look that suggests a vanished, little-known world.
This atmosphere also prevails in Li’s early life at the Academy, where indoctrination and military-style discipline prevail amid stark interiors. It’s shockingly harsh and militaristic, the emphasis on gymnastic ability and technique rather than artistic expression, with teachers arguing over whether Chinese dancers should learn from Western styles or ignore them.
The stranglehold the Chinese Government had on its citizens is dramatised in appearances from the doctrinaire Madame Mao. And even when the young Li first gets to the US on a cultural exchange he’s subject to the Chinese consulate-general’s warnings about the dangers of Western women.
The film fits neatly into the ballet film genre. The ghost of the great Baryshnikov, who defected from Russia to Canada in 1974 and has supplemented his successful dancing career with acting, is never far away.
Indeed, the dancing in the film is its great strength, with choreography by Graeme Murphy and Janet Vernon, former artistic directors of the Sydney Ballet Company. (This goes for the studio scenes as well as the huge set pieces.) Highlights include some extravagant communist kitsch at the Beijing Academy that’s great fun to watch; excerpts from an Australian Ballet production of Swan Lake; and a beautiful dance scene featuring Li and Mary McKendry (Camilla Vergotis) with not a point in sight.
Shot in China, Australia and Houston, Mao’s Last Dancer features, both in major roles and as extras, a huge array of actual dancers. These include Chinese dancers, as well as former and current members of the Australian Ballet and the Sydney Dance Company; watch out for Camilla Vergotis, Madeleine Eastoe and Stephen Heathcote in supporting or cameo performances.
The decision to cast dancers in the lead roles mainly pays off. Three actors play Li at various stages of his life, and given that the youngest is a gymnast and the other two dancers, they deserve congratulations.
First time actor Chi Cao plays the adult Li. He’s a versatile leading man – handsome, lithe, and a superb artist with a strong screen presence. In real life a principal with the Royal Birmingham Ballet, his agile grace ignites the ballet scenes, and when Li fills in at the last moment to play a Don Quixote pas de deux, learning the moves in three hours, it’s an absolute highlight.
Chi succeeds in conveying Li’s culture shock as he arrives in the seemingly decadent West and is confronted with ATMs, blenders, and outrageous sums being spent on clothes. His innocence and naivety in a blossoming relationship with dancer Liz Mackey is delicately handled. But the innocent, bewildered persona becomes laboured after a while, as does the joke of Li’s being lured by the capitalist evils of 1980s Houston.
Unfortunately dancer and actor Amanda Schull, who plays Liz – a pivotal role – isn’t quite up to scratch, and she's out of her depth in the scenes that require heavy emotion.
But the acting is not the main problem here. A major issue is that there’s rarely enough complexity to distinguish the characters from the generic. For example, veteran Canadian actor Bruce Greenwood does his best in the role of Ben Stevenson, artistic director of the Houston Ballet and a vital mentor for Li; his ease and gracefulness make you believe he’s a born ballet teacher. But there’s simply no depth to the role, nothing to distinguish him from a thousand dedicated teachers.
This may or may not be a result of the film's origins. Without having read the book, I can’t comment on whether or not it is limited in its ability to convey the complexities of the main players, including Li himself. But the film at least fails to bring the characters fully to life.
Thematically it also lacks originality. The narrative of an individual striving tirelessly for artistic excellence is now hackneyed, and it demanded a more original treatment here. The young Li supplements his luck and talent with a penchant for gruelling practice – we see him toiling after hours in the studio to perfect his split jumps, and hopping up stairs with sandbags around his ankles to strengthen his muscles.
Of course it’s interesting to contemplate how the real-life Li has combined the discipline and technique he learned in China with the artistic freedom and idea of individual achievement that the West must have offered him. But in many ways this is simply a rehashing of the tale in which the individual fulfils the American Dream. Indeed, the film sometimes resembles a propaganda piece for Western values and the freedom and opportunities of the American way of life.
There’s no doubt Mao’s Last Dancer comes to us from a prize-winning team. Producer Jane Scott was behind the award-winning Shine and director Bruce Beresford has achieved international fame with films such as Black Robe and Paradise Road. The screenplay is by the venerable Jan Sardi, who wrote the screenplay of Shine.
But although it offers constant drama and some suspense, ‘light entertainment’ is perhaps the best description of Mao’s Last Dancer. With more sophisticated characterisation and exploration of its themes it could have been much more.
A last note: veteran Australian actor Penne Hackforth-Jones plays a supporting role as Cynthia Dodds and it’s inexplicable that she’s not in the cast list on the film’s official website.
Verdict: dramatic, visually strong at times, but ultimately undemanding
Saturday, September 12, 2009
In The Danger Game, first-time novelist Kalinda Ashton provides a critique of postmodern society that is bruising, sophisticated and trenchant.
In its strong engagement with the politics of disadvantage, the novel might be offering itself as the fictional complement to The Land of Plenty by Mark Davis, a recent plea for the transformation of Australia’s stymied body politic.
The Danger Game succeeds in nailing the foreclosing and separating effects of economic rationalism in a far more subtle way than, say, Three Dollars, whose characters were not only helpless victims of the Kennett government but of the novel’s crusading author, Elliot Perlman. The book’s also a welcome change from the relentlessly upper middle class milieus of so many of our beloved baby boomer authors.
At the heart of The Danger Game is a tragedy that explodes into the lives of a struggling family and leaves them stunned and emotionally stunted for years to come.
******Plot elements discussed below******
It’s 1991. Alice Reilly and her younger siblings, twins Louise and Jeremy, live with their parents in a ‘housing commission’ area in a ‘fibro-cement townhouse … with a tacked-on brick porch out the front and a scrap of garden for a backyard’. Alice’s family is rent by conflict between her bitter, alcoholic father and angry, overworked mother. Louise courts danger and seeks to live on the edge while quiet, studious Jeremy is prey to school bullies and seeks solace in the mysteries of science and the natural world.
But Jeremy’s attempt to gain entry to an academic school sets off a series of events that lead to the family home going up in flames. The tragedy that ensues tears this fragile family apart.
Years later, each family member struggles alone with the aftermath of the tragedy. Alice has turned her back on the past by pursuing a teaching career in a struggling secondary college and is now embroiled in a non-committal affair with a married man, Jon. But with a desperate Louise knocking on her door and seeking answers about the past, she’s forced to confront the mystery of what really happened on the night of the fire.
******Plot elements end******
The Danger Game is concerned with the insidious violences of class, in a world in which the very concept is supposedly anachronistic. The novel seeks to reveal the straitened, subtle, myriad effects of poverty and disadvantage on family life. For Ashton, disadvantage hasn’t lessened with the refinement of the welfare state; it’s just as entrenched in 2009 as it was in 1991, when the first part of the novel is set.
It’s no surprise, then, that The Danger Game has been touted as a realist novel. Its purposes certainly fit snugly within the social realist tradition, but it combines this literary style with a good dose of grunge, and its plot structure is anything but remorselessly linear. The reader swings between three points of view: Jeremy in 1991, in the time leading up to the fire; Louise in the present; and Alice in the present.
In each case the reader enters the world of the character and has a sense of looking out from under their skin, of feeling, seeing and experiencing what they do. This is most evident in the sections on Louise; because she’s emotionally on the run, there’s an unending momentum here, a constant sense of both scenery and sensation slipping by:
You walk along the scratchy sand near the sea, the luxurious silence in tree-lined streets that whisper words of money and comfort, then the rubbish-trailed streets where men shuffle into boarding houses and women’s legs are puckered with goose pimples beneath short dresses, their hips swinging as they pace up and down the block.
Ashton has been compared to novelist Christos Tsiolkas, which is understandable given the latter’s recent and stunningly successful exposé of modern relationships, The Slap. Ashton’s detailed evocations of the badlands of Melbourne and Sydney sometimes recall Tsiolkas’s ruthless dissection of inner suburban family life. But she’s a more lyrical writer than Tsiolkas, and her approach to sexuality is more nuanced.
Ashton’s characters spring to life through her unfailing, meticulous observations. Alice, Louise and Jeremy are very real, always earthed, and constantly shadowed by the material detritus that helps delineate them. There is no waftiness here, no sentimentality: at times the realism becomes almost documentary-like, and the novel attains a cinematic brightness, like a series of close-up shots: ‘The waitress thumped two glasses of water onto the table. Her hair, tucked firmly behind her ears, was the colour of muddy honey’; ‘when I started teaching I saw an earnest girl with intricate braids lean over to one of the shy girls who sat next to the door and say, “I’m going to set you on fire” ’.
At some points the clarity of the imagery reminded me of the brilliant Sonya Hartnett, but Ashton is less concerned than Hartnett with the stunning metaphor, instead building up images through accumulations of telling details. The scenes of Alice visiting her near-derelict father are painfully vivid; there’s so much compassionate but unremitting observation here, not just of defeat and marginalisation but of the continuation of some form of order and routine:
… he would have become used to the tiny calculations that made life possible: using teabags twice; checking your change; doing the divisions for the meal, the day, the week. Black and Gold butter, reading the newspaper at the library, the bargain trolleys at the supermarket.
The relationships are also richly imagined and as complex as they are straitened. Alice’s interactions with Louise and with her lover, Jon, are effortlessly naturalistic and full of emotional shorthand. The changes that take place in Alice’s emotional landscape are unanticipated, much like real life; we don’t really know what’s going to happen any more than Alice does, and the ending reveals an unexpected twist.
The persistence of trauma, the way past trauma grasps its victims and plays with them in different ways, is everywhere in this novel. For Ashton, public policies contribute to private traumas in complex ways, and trauma leads to personal dysfunction.
But Ashton wants us to understand that the urge to come to terms with the past is not an indulgent, middle-class illusion. Against a culture of forgetting, she wants to convince us that the past constantly invades the present unless its worst possibilities are faced: ‘the past is gone even while it bites at your skin and bleeds in your eyes’. Louise’s frantic attempts to find the truth seem to arise from a sudden realisation that her very existence in the future may depend on it.
But if, for the working class at least, the tragedies of the past are entwined with the subtle workings of capitalism, their social and economic underpinnings also bleed into the present. Alice has tried to let the past go and become middle class, but her unsatisfactory relationship with Jon, and a crisis that erupts at her college, force her to admit that she’s been stymied both emotionally and professionally:
I had learned to read clever books and wear smart clothes and argue about Freud with a man who already had a wife. Now I was hopeless at reaching the students I taught, distanced by my authority and their willingness to see through my forced optimism.
It’s a strength of the novel that none of the characters has a shred of self-pity, despite the poverty and discord they’ve experienced (although there’s plenty of self-sabotage going on). So while the story is a damning critique of social injustice, the characters never lose their agency.
My main beef with the novel is that it sometimes overdoes the attention to detail. Ashton occasionally relies too much on her talent for intricate observation and needs to make the odd sweeping Garner-esque statement. At one point I got a bit bored with the characters’ relentless focus on what had actually occurred on the night of the fire, for example.
And the plot moved too slowly at times: some sections were too long and seemed to be mainly there as set-ups for later sections. For example, the crisis at Alice’s school results in the involvement of the teacher’s union. The delineation of the crisis and the likely outcomes, told through a conversation between Alice and the union representative, is simply too detailed for the average reader, and the novel veers too close to trying to educate readers about the intricacies of union politics. These problems could have been fixed with a ruthless structural edit.
Despite my criticisms this is a strong, vivid, fully realised tale that will be read for its own sake, and not for what Ashton might be capable of in the future. Although we can expect to hear more from her, with The Danger Game Ashton has already achieved much.
This book is only the third novel to be published by Sleepers, an independent publishing company that thrives on hard work, dedication and grants from the Australia Council. (Its last foray, Things We Didn’t See Coming by Steven Amsterdam, has just won the Age Book of the Year Award, a huge coup.)
Sleepers deserves congratulations for nurturing the literary culture of Australia, and indeed Melbourne, and for bringing us talented novelists such as Ashton who might otherwise be overlooked in the current economic climate.