Few things are less life-affirming than seeing someone’s true story shrink-wrapped into an overly familiar heart-warmer. While Bruce Beresford’s latest, about Chinese dancer Li Cunxin (Chi), isn’t excessively sentimental (unlike, say, the Aussie director’s softly-softly on race relations, Driving Miss Daisy), the film’s treatment of its subject reduces the narrative to a standard pauper-to-prince arc. Granted permission by the Maoist government, the former student of Beijing’s dance academy leaves his country in the mid-’80s to train with a Houston ballet company; as he acclimatises himself to the American spectacle (tall buildings, shopping malls, oh my!), desaturated flashbacks show his rise from impoverished obscurity to international stardom.
Perhaps the film’s impersonality stems from the source (Li’s own memoir was adapted by Shine screenwriter Jan Sardi), or from lead actor Chi Cao’s limited range. But this real-life artist’s avatar functions less as a person than an idea reflecting back the exoticism and admiration of others. Even during a bona fide moment of truth, in which the detained dancer considers forsaking his homeland for a new life, he seems strangely enigmatic, pacing the room at a far remove. The performance sequences feel intimate and exhilarating—but in the end, Li’s journey is compelling only when he’s onstage.