This is the true story of Li Cunxin. He was born in poverty in a village in the Shandong province of China. In 1972, when he is 11 years old, he is living with his family and parents (played by Joan Chen and Wang Shuangbao) and attending the village school. One day, government talent scouts visit the school and select him to be trained to dance in the Beijing Dance Academy. Although he is so young, he immediately leaves his family under the guardianship of the government officials and travels to Beijing to begin his studies at the Academy, where he experiences the impact of the Cultural Revolution. As he grows into a youth, his training is hard but his passion and talent for ballet grows and he rises through the ranks of the Academy. As a young man, he participates in a dance exchange programme with the Houston Ballet company and travels to Texas in the United States to dance. During his stay he meets and falls for fellow-dancer Elizabeth (by Amanda Schull). They settle into their life in Texas, but he is then ordered back to China. As he is an internationally famous ballet star by this stage, he causes an international incident when he refuses to go back and defects to the West. Li eventually settles in Australia and has since written his memoir, been awarded the Australian of the Year and he is now a senior manager at one of the biggest stockbroking firms in Australia.
In this movie, Li is played at different stages of his life by three actors (eventually by Chi Cao). His story is very interesting and although it accesses most cliches about China, it does show the key cultural aspects of the Chinese revolution. There is ballet throughout the movie, but don’t be put off by this if you don’t really like it, as I don’t think it’s overdone. It’s a good story and the book “Mao’s Last Dancer” is very popular also.