"You could never make this stuff up," says Bruce Beresford. The acclaimed Australian director is talking about his film Mao's Last Dancer, which opened across Canada on Friday. It is based on the wildly popular 2003 autobiography of ballet dancer Li Cunxin, whose defection from China in 1981 created an international incident and a 21-hour standoff at the Chinese consulate in Houston.
The film is riding a wave of success. It was runner-up for the People's Choice Award at last year's Toronto International Film Festival, and is currently playing to packed houses in Australia, New Zealand and Singapore. A pirate DVD is a huge bestseller in China, says Beresford, who counts Last Dance and Driving Miss Daisy among his other works. "We're getting e-mails from the Chinese crew saying how much they love the movie!"
When Beresford's sister gave him a copy of the book several years ago, he thought it was a fascinating story, but impossible to film. "Where were you going to find a handsome, charismatic, super-talented Chinese dancer who could speak both Mandarin and English?" he asks.
Enter Chi Cao. Currently a principal dancer with Birmingham Royal Ballet, at 32, he is a ballet superstar, blessed with talent to burn and smouldering good looks. The son of a musician and a dance teacher, Cao moved with his parents from Shanghai to Beijing when he was 4.
There, his father became head of the Beijing Dance Academy, one of the world's great schools for classical ballet training, and the school where Li himself was sent as a child. Li became close to Cao's father and stayed in touch over the years. It was Li who suggested Cao for the role. "He called me about a year and half before filming and told me to start taking acting classes," Cao says.
Cao reports that the rigid system of training has changed very little since Li's days at the school. Yet he never thought of any other career. "The funny thing is, I didn't know my father was the principal of the Beijing Dance Academy until I started at the school. … It was easier being the principal's son because none of the other kids wanted to get on my wrong side, but I also had to try harder than anyone else."
Cao became a superb young dancer. In 1993, a scholarship at the Royal Ballet School took him to London at the age of 15. The following year, he won a gold medal at the prestigious Prix de Lausanne. Yet he was not invited into the Royal Ballet. "I was the best dancer at the school that year, so it was surprising," he says. "Perhaps they thought they already had too many Oriental dancers in the company."
Cao joined Birmingham Royal Ballet in 1995 and went on to win another gold medal at the Varna International Ballet Competition in 1998. Like Li in his prime, he is considered among the great danseurs nobles - the male equivalent of a prima ballerina - of the world.
Hollywood came calling with the success of his book, but Li held onto the rights until he was approached by Australian writer Jan Sardi and producer Jane Scott, the team behind Shine.
Like the story of troubled piano prodigy David Helfgott, Li's life had much that could have been ramped up into melodrama. He was born into an illiterate peasant family of seven boys on a commune near China's northeast coast. In 1971, Madame Mao's cultural apparatchiks swept into his school looking for child talent for her Beijing Dance Academy. At age 11, Li was separated from his family and sent to the capital.
In 1978, Ben Stevenson, the artistic director of Houston Ballet, came to China on the first American cultural exchange. (Canadian actor Bruce Greenwood, who plays Stevenson in the movie, took ballet lessons to prepare for the role.) Stevenson offered Li a scholarship to train with his company.In Houston, Li found freedom of expression and an American girlfriend, dancer Elizabeth Mackey (Amanda Shull). When he was due to return to China, he and Mackey secretly married so Li could remain in the U.S. At the Chinese consulate, where the couple went to disclose their marriage, Li was seized and locked up.
Mackey, another dancer and her husband who had aided in the plan, and immigration lawyer Charles Foster (Kyle MacLachlan) refused to leave without Li. Bush, now vice-president, sent FBI agents to surround the consulate. The event became a media frenzy, and 21 hours later, Li was free, but stripped of his Chinese citizenship. He became a principal dancer with the Houston Ballet.
Although Cao didn't have to fight to leave China to study, "I still shared an emotional connection with Li. I had the same culture shock as a teenager coming to the West. I couldn't afford the £1.40 a minute to phone China so was cut off from my parents. I didn't know if I'd be allowed to return to England if I went home, so I couldn't take the risk."
Beresford thinks Cao could pursue an acting career. Greenwood was impressed too. "When he asked me for advice about acting, I told him one word - Listen! - and he did. If the call was for 6 a.m., he'd be up at 4, doing the barre, then a class, then stretching. It's clear he's not your average dancer. He has tremendous physical ability and is alive in his body all the time."
And where is Li Cunxin now? After his first marriage broke up, he married Australian ballerina Mary McKendry. They live in Melbourne with their three children where Li is a stockbroker and motivational speaker.
When asked why Mao's Last Dancer is such a hit with audiences, Beresford says, "It's a rags to riches story, optimistic and uplifting, but not corny. I don't like making gloomy films."