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American Women's Club of Hamburg

It’s Only a Movie!

Remember when it was an endorsement of a film to advertise “It’s only a movie!”? The tagline was used for the 1972 horror (and horrific) Wes Craven film The Last House on the Left which advertised: To avoid fainting, keep repeating “It’s only a movie…It’s only a movie…” That was a film I wish I had never seen and the tagline was a useful mental exercise which I continued to use for films that push the boundaries of inhumanity; films filled with unimaginable cruelty, depravity and evil. For me, such unforgettable films began with Night of the Living Dead (1968) and include The Exorcist (1973) and end with Se7en (1995). Se7en was the last horror film I knowingly chose to see. Perhaps so because as a practicing lawyer, I took the execution of the lawyer in that film for greed a bit too personally despite the fact the story was not true.

Two films based on true stories reminded me of my old horror film mantra that it’s only movie but with a twist. I chose both films because they were dramas based on fact and the subject matter was of interest. In the film Mao’s Last Dancer, a child of farmers born into Mao Tse-Tung’s China becomes a ballet dancer. The story sounds more like the product of a good imagination. But the film is based on the autobiography of Li Cunxin and watching a young boy grow from an uncomfortable dancer into a breathtaking premier danseur was all the more exciting because this isn’t only a movie – it’s real life! And for me, real life can evoke much more emotion than when it’s only a movie, particularly when experiencing someone living the American dream.

The second film resonated given the current political climate in France concerning the expulsion of Roma from the country. In August of this year, a crackdown on Roma immigrants was ordered by President Nicolas Sarkozy and he sent scores of Roma back to Romania. The film Kokoro looks at a gypsy family returning to France in 1943 to work in a vineyard. The clothes, the music, and their culture are beautifully depicted and then contrasted with the ugly prejudice and mistreatment they suffered. A look at the past gives more meaning to the present because the story is drawn from real life and a history of abuse that the Roma have endured.

Kokoro (Freedom)
In 1943 during the Second World War, a Gypsy family of twenty men, women and children returned to a French town where they usually stopped for a few months of work in the vineyards. They are no longer welcome as before and there is a new law that prohibits them from being nomadic. Theodore, the town mayor, and Miss Lundi, the local school teacher try to help the family settle but they are all arrested and sent to an internment camp. Theodore gives the gypsies his old family home to live in so that they can be released from the camp. But the gypsies who love their freedom most still suffer prejudice from the locals, find they cannot stay there and try to return to Belgium. While travelling they are arrested again.

This film is based on testimony by historian Jaques Sigot about Taloche. Taloche was interned at Montreuil-Bellay until he was released after buying a small house through a notary. But he could not bear remaining in one place and after taking to the road to return to his country of origin, he was again arrested and then disappeared in Poland.

Director Tony Gatlif whose mother was Roma states: “It is important that those who don't know, learn that the Roma were deported in France and in the whole of Europe. It is important that the young come to know the Roma people from the inside. That they learn of the evil laws of 1912 (anthropometric identity cards) against the Tsiganes, and the Vichy laws which forbade nomadism on the national territory: those laws which led them to the Nazi extermination camps or into French camps, from which some did not get out until 1946.”()

Mao’s Last Dancer
Li Cunxin – now living in Australia – wrote a book about his life which was published in 2003 and became a bestseller around the world. His upbringing in communist China during the Cultural Revolution, his training for Madam Mao’s elite Beijing Dance Academy, subsequent defecting to the United States and becoming a ballet star make a compelling read. Veteran director Bruce Beresford (Driving Miss Daisy) and scriptwriter Jan Sardi (Oscar-winning Shine) present a colourful and emotionally touching screen version of Mao’s Last Dancer (title of the book).

The film starts in 1981 with wide-eyed Li arriving from China at Houston Airport. He has been invited for a cultural-exchange student programme with the Houston Ballet. Ben Stevenson (Bruce Greenwood), the artistic director, welcomes him into his home and acts as an interpreter of American culture and custom. Soon enough the charming Li finds another teacher in the cute fellow dancer Elizabeth (Amanda Schull). After three months, he is ordered back to China. By this time he has tasted individual success, the luxuries of the west - and love. He marries his sweetheart Elizabeth and decides to stay. When pleading his case with the Chinese officials, a nasty international incident is the outcome. Strings are being pulled on the highest level even involving Barbara Bush who is a strong supporter of the Houston Ballet. After a lot of publicity and public pressure he can stay. But the price is high: He will never be able to return to see his family. As painful as this is, he puts all his energy and ambition into dancing. His strict and focused discipline makes him a big international star and the darling of the ballet scene.    

Li is played at different stages of his life by three actors. Huang Wen Bin is the 11-year old living with his peasant family in rural China. The part of the teenager is played by Chengwu Gou when Li is already a strong dancer. He puts all his effort into satisfying even the strictest of his teachers. It pays off, allowing him to travel to America. This remarkable biography would not work half as well on film without the lead actor Chi Cao - principal dancer with the Birmingham Royal Ballet - playing the adult Li. He not only is very handsome but brings a naivety and honest emotion to the screen that is totally moving. To top it all – he is an extraordinary dancer, dazzling the audience with his grace and superb leaps. It is a thoroughly enjoyable and entertaining movie for the entire family but is a must for any ballet lover. ()

Mao’s Last Dancer - A Second Opinion
How wonderful it is when poor boy makes good!
Li Cunxin grew up during the Chinese Cultural Revolution and was plucked from a life of poverty to train as a ballet dancer. He was selected from millions, worked incredibly hard for years and years and became one of his country’s best dancers.

Li was chosen to participate in a three month season with the Houston ballet in Texas and very quickly became its principal dancer. When his visa wasn’t extended by the Chinese authorities he quickly married his American girlfriend in order to stay in the United States. Li then had a long and distinguished career as a ballet dancer and, when he retired, he wrote his life story, on which this movie is based.

Li missed his parents and six brothers and knew that he would be unlikely to see them again. He had nightmares that his parents would be killed for his defection. The scene where he is reunited with his mother and father is very poignant and is a spectacular finale to an unforgettable film. The dancer Chi Cao, who is the son of two of Li’s teachers at Beijing’s dance academy, is the principal dancer at Birmingham’s Royal Ballet in England. Mr. Bereford’s film captures the amazing athletic skills of ballet dancers, and, boy, can Chi dance!

Bruce Beresford, who won four well-deserved Oscars for the movie Driving Miss Daisy, has directed a beautiful movie also worthy of an Oscar. ()

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